Once more we venture into the world of Selene and Nix, and is a sequel to that story. This is set in the world of Blood and Honor, although it is set before that story.

Disclaimer -
All the characters belong to Windstar and Zee.
There are same-sex couples running amok. If you don't like such things, please go elsewhere to read. This is a sequel, of sorts, to Selene and Nix, which should probably be read first. Big thanks to our beta reader Packer.

Feedback always welcome Adarkbow@yahoo.com or zeeamy@gmail.com

By Windstar and Zee


It was, Selene considered, a beautiful day. Bright summer sunshine flooded the streets of the small city that had grown up on the island in the middle of the Winderling. She smiled to a passing woman, well aware that there were more crow's feet that lined her eyes than there had been when she had first seen this island.

There had been many changes since then, some good and some bad, and she could only hope that the good outweighed the bad. Waving to another passerby, the first Queen of the North found her way down a path she had walked every day since she had taken Nix as her wife.

Humming to herself, she stepped around a pair of Alcens who were tied up outside and stepped into the heat of the forge itself. As it always did, the sight of Nix hard at work over another task caused her to smile.

The fact that her wife was working alone caused that smile to dim though. There was supposed to have been a second person working at the forge that day.

Nix grumbled, and generally huffed and puffed. In theory, she knew this day had to come, Kelsey had warned her, and the signs had been there for a while now. Her daughter just didn't want to spend time with her anymore. She wasn't as fun and exciting as the girls her daughter played with. Girls, she snorted, not with those developing breasts. Her daughter had thrown a fit and run off to hang out with some of the younger women in the city.

Selene leaned against the side of one of the massive anvils that were spread throughout the busy forge. "Hello, love." She nodded to the billows that were normally their daughter's responsibility. "What happened?"

Nix gave a yelp as her wife startled her. Turning, she easily saw Selene·even through the cloth she wore over her eyes to protect them from the sun. Her shoulders slumped. What seems to happen a lot lately, our daughter has, once again, gotten out of her chores.

Biting her lip to avoid grinning, Selene moved over to the taller woman and gently grabbed her arm to stop her for a moment so she could claim a kiss. "I'm sorry. You know how they are at that age. She thinks she knows best."

With a sigh, Nix sat down on a stool, and looked at Selene. "We had a fight. She told me she hates me and my stupid forge, and ran off to hang with her friends."

The smaller woman winced, sitting down on one strong knee. "I'm sorry. How bad was it?" Nix had aged well over the past decades, still as strong as the day Selene had met her, even if there was now silver in that short, dark hair.

It started out with what I thought was an innocent question. She asked what I thought of Sable." Nix shook her head ruefully, remembering the landslide she had set off with her answer. "I told the truth. I think the girl is a lazy, selfish brat." She crossed her hands over her chest defensively, and looked at her partner, "And that was the wrong thing to say."

The wince was more of a grimace this time, and Selene got up off Nix's lap to pace the confines of the smithy. It had been such a nice day when she was walking outside.

"Probably doesn't help that you were right."

Sable wasn't one of Selene's favorite people of all time. The girl was spoiled to death by her two parents and had the run of the city. Children were so precious, that sometimes Selene worried that they were all being coddled too much.

The smith stayed strong and stoic for about thirty seconds before her chin started to tremble. "I blame myself," she cried out. "You were right. I spoiled the girl too much as a baby. But I can't relate to this thing she's turned into. In the mines we didn't have these luxuries."

Selene hurried back to Nix's side.

The large smith sniffed and wiped away a few tears with one hand while the other stayed firmly around Selene's waist. She still remembered the day Cassia was born, hardly being able to contain her wonder. And the first time she held her, Nix had cried, so overwhelmed by love. Now, she really fought with herself. In the heat of their argument, all she had wanted to do was to throw the girl over her knee and spank her. Like any other violent thought she had ever had, it made her want to vomit.

Selene rubbed her fingers along Nix's head, slowly trying to massage out the tension she could feel there. "I'm sure it will be fine. We've argued before, you know, and it always worked out before." There was a note of uncertainty though; it took a lot to make her love cry. "We tried not to coddle her, and I never said you spoiled her. If anything, I spoiled her. You were always the voice of reason, remember?"

Nix nodded and leaned her head against Selene's chest, enjoying the feeling of her love's hands rubbing her head. "I suppose it doesn't help she's the only child to the North's leader. The whole stupid city spoils her, but she didn't get really bad with those airs until she started hanging out with Sable. That girl has filled Cassia's head with nonsense, making folks bow and such."

The fingers paused for a moment and Selene blinked in surprise. "She makes people bow to her?" That was the first that she'd heard about that. Why hadn't she noticed that? The worry grew stronger as she wondered how bad this had truly become, and when had she missed it?

Nix looked at Selene and nodded. "Oh, yes. I caught her with Sable roaming around two nights ago. I saw Milla the seamstress bow to them while crossing the path to the well. I ran after her to ask why she did it. That old woman just shrugged and said Cassia told her to."

She sighed in pleasure, feeling Selene massage out a particularly nasty knot in her neck. "When Crow visits, I'm almost tempted to send Cassia back with her to work the mines. Crow and the rest of the Fire Clan won't put up with that nonsense."

They'd talked about that before and Selene had been against it. She had no desire to see her daughter work in a mine, no matter how much Nix promised it would be almost perfectly completely kind of safe. This time she held her peace, maybe that would be good for their daughter if she'd become so full of herself she was making people bow to her.

We need to get her to realize she can't just go around making people bow to her." She sighed, leaning her forehead against the taller woman's shoulder.

"Being a parent is hard, harder still when you have no role models. Crow raised me in the mines, helped me survive and not feel so alone. Sometimes I feel at such a loss, but bowing is a respect that must be earned not expected," Nix said softly, reaching her hands up and gently returning the favor by kneading the stiff muscles in her lover's back.

A burst of giggling from the yard in front of the smithy caused Selene to look up, immediately regretting the loss of the nice massage, and sighing as she recognized the two girls who were heading towards the doorway. "Here comes our daughter," she paused, voice becoming considerably less happy, "and Sable."

The scowl that had disappeared earlier came back, and Nix eased Selene off her lap as she stood. "Cassia!" she boomed. "Get in here, young lady." She wished Crow was here, her Mine sister would know what to do, and probably, she mused, from putting up with Yuri for so many years.

Sable rolled her eyes at the smith's booming voice. Her mothers said that their Leader, Selene, had married way below her station with that one. Now that she was older, she had to wonder what their, for all-purposes, 'Queen' - except Selene hated that term - saw in that smelly laborer.

Her teenage brain figured it had to be all that muscle

"Mooommmmm...everyone can hear you when you yell like that." Cassia rolled her eyes in almost unison with Sable. She thought about grabbing her girlfriend's hand and running away just to piss off her mom, but decided against it. They had important news to share, after all. Taking Sable's hand in hers, she led the way into the smithy, trying to look important. "You bellowed?" she grinned at her own joke.

In seeing her daughter's hand firmly clapped around that stupid mooncalf's in a rather disturbing intimate display, Nix feared the worst. "Sable, unless you want to spend the rest of your evening cleaning the smithy, I think you should go home. Someone has shirked all her chores today."

Selene stepped up next to her lover, placing her hand on the taller woman's shoulder and eyeing the two girls disapprovingly. Sable had always come across as a huge fawning annoyance every time Selene had met her before.

Sable rolled her eyes. Her parents had the philosophy of why sweat if you can have someone else to do it, and since her mothers were wealthy merchants who traveled to the South constantly bringing back valuable items in trade, they had a staff to do stuff in their house. Her eyes dismissed the smith, but lit up at seeing Selene. "Hello, your Highness," she simpered and curtsied.

Besides her, Selene shuddered a little at the annoying tone coming from the young woman. "I think you should go home, Sable, we need to talk with Cassia." She gave a dark look to her daughter. Which probably didn't work as well now that she'd grown taller than Selene, her height along with the dark hair were obviously gifts from Nix's side.

"Mom, we have something important to tell you!"

"Did your mother not just tell you to do something?" Nix said in frustration. Where had the little girl, who had wanted rides on her shoulders or thought it was cool her mother could see perfectly at night, gone?

Cassia might have been taller than Selene, but she was still shorter than Nix and had to look up to meet her mother's eyes, which worked well since she was lifting her chin to appear defiant. "Not until I tell you the news. We're going to have a commitment ceremony."

Selene grabbed onto Nix's arm so hard she was probably going to leave bruises. "What?"

Nix didn't even have to think about it. "No. You're too young."

"My mothers said it was all right," Sable helpfully pointed out, apparently oblivious to the glaring going on between Cassia and her mothers.

Suddenly, she felt so terribly old. Her, silly, immature little girl wanted to marry that·that...mooncalf. Nix sat down heavily on her stool, the wood groaning under her weight.

Selene nearly toppled over as her lover suddenly sat down, though she managed to stay upright only by grabbing onto Nix's shoulder and steadying herself. "You can't." She looked desperately between Cassia, Sable, and Nix, trying, praying, for some sort of solid, absolute reason why she couldn't.

"I can and I will!" Cassia said defiantly, head held high. "I don't need your permission! All we need is a priestess."

Nix surged off the stool and grabbed her daughter by the arm, halting what would have surely been an impressive exit. "You listen here, young lady, we are still your mothers and you will not talk to us in that tone of voice." She was totally out of her depth here. At her age, she had been in chains, forced to pump the bellows for the master smith. This creature that her sweet, innocent, little Cassia had turned into was truly a mystery, one that she wanted very badly to put over her knee and spank.

Sable stepped back in fear as she watched the huge woman grab Cassia. She had heard her mothers mutter over dinner once that the smith must have bespelled the Queen to get her to give up such a lovely, graceful woman as Laurel. Now, as she watched the woman's massive, meaty, paw close around her beloved's arm, she had to wonder if it wasn't true. Maybe the Queen had been bullied into the marriage.

"Nix!" Selene looked like she was on the verge of crying, her face twisted with warring emotions. "Please, Cassia, we should talk about this."

Their daughter ignored the nearly desperate voice of her mother and tried to jerk her arm free from Nix's grasp. She still had to look up into the taller woman's face, but she towered over Selene. "I'm an adult now, I don't need your permission; they all say so!"

At her love's words, Nix let go, feeling ashamed for her temper getting the better of her. "Who says you don't need our permission? The last time I checked, your mother's opinion outranked everybody else's." Goddess why wouldn't that mooncalf leave, couldn't she tell this was a family moment, one that didn't concern her. Nix shot a glare at the young woman, but since the cloth she always wore covered her eyes, it was less than effective.

The tears started at last as Cassia felt herself losing out on what she wanted. "You never let me do what I want! I hate you! I hate you all! You always tell me I have to become the next leader, but you never let me decide anything!"

At the sheer anger and rage in her daughter's voice, Selene staggered back, tears leaking down the sides of her face. "Cassia..." she whispered, eyes pained as she held out her hand to someone who had been her little girl only yesterday.

Nix sucked in a breath, at the moment feeling as big as a grasshopper. She looked to Selene for help before looking back at her daughter. "Sable, go home. We need to have a family talk. I'm sure Cassia will come find you when we are done."

The young woman didn't move for a second, but then shot her girlfriend a pitying look before leaving the smithy.

"Why do you have to ruin everything?" Cassia shouted at Nix, sulking as Sable left her there.

"Cassia, please, stop!" Selene begged. Why could she handle three hundred different problems a day from everyone else, but a few tears from her daughter and she fell apart?

"Us..? How have we ruined your life? What do you know about being a grown-up? You and the rest of you shirk your chores and run around doing what you please. For the past week you have avoided any of your responsibilities and you want me to believe that you are grown up enough to take on the commitment of a life dedicated to spending with another," Nix ranted.

"You always twist my words! I hate you, both of you!" Cassia yelled then sprinted for her room above the smithy, slamming the door hard behind her as she went.

Selene watched her go, a heartsick expression on her face, tears streaming down her face as she watched her little girl go.

Nix blew out a breath then went to her lover and enveloped her in her arms. "I'm sorry," she whispered over and over again. "I made a bigger mess of things. Next time I'll just sit and you can talk to her."

"She doesn't listen to me anymore." Selene buried her head in her love's chest, hiding the tears. "I can talk to everyone in the north, get them to stop fighting and bickering, but I can't talk to my daughter." She closed her eyes in pain.

"Ten to one Sable doesn't even really love our daughter. She just thinks she does because her mothers tell her she does. I won't let our daughter make a mistake like that, because it's more than just her life, it's the future of all of us. She needs someone more...more...well, one with a brain in her head."

Gently, her large hands stroked her love's hair and back, trying to comfort her as best she could while she spoke.

The tears slowed then stopped as Selene gratefully soaked up the strength and support offered by the taller woman. Finally, she whispered, "Do you think Willow could help?"

Nix nodded, "Maybe. Why don't I close down the forge and then I'll make you a nice cup of tea and we'll just go to bed and pretend this didn't happen? In the morning we'll go talk to Willow."

That earned her a sniffling nod, and Selene slowly let go of her. "I don't think I can pretend this didn't happen though. You might want to put something good in the tea."

Nix nodded, and kissed Selene lightly on the lips. "I'll do my best."

Nix sent her love to their room to try and relax while she started the task of shutting down the forge for the day. She wished Crow was here. Cassia loved Crow and would often speak to the woman of things she wouldn't with her mothers. And Crow could tell her what a fool she was for losing her temper like that. She quietly shut the front door of the smithy then moved to the common living area. With a sigh, she removed the cloth from her eyes and her blue eyes blinked in the dim light of her house.

Tomorrow had to be a better day.


Selene was right, even in her sleep she couldn't forget that the awful night hadn't happened, although the tea that Nix had made had helped. Cassia had slipped out sometime before they had woken up at dawn, not that Selene was very surprised by that, but she was disappointed.

The two of them were sitting in the small kitchen off the smithy, both of them silent and brooding.

Without a knock, the front door opened and a large body filled the doorframe blocking the light. Nix winced and grabbed for the protective cloth for her eyes.

"Hey, Runt," came the cheerful, booming voice of Crow.

Selene had never been so happy to hear that booming voice as she was now. She could see the relief in her love's face as well, as they both turned towards the doorway, a welcoming smile, strained, but welcoming on the smaller woman's face.

"Crow, what good timing you have."

"By spark and flame, don't you two look stressed," Crow said, striding into the house. She, like Nix, had aged well, her once dark hair having turned silver, except for a few stray strands of black. Also, she needed to use a staff to help her stand and sit, her joints unhappy after a lifetime of hard labor, and she wasn't as strong as she once had been, but she was still stronger than most. But her mind was sharp and clear as ever. A smaller, compact woman followed her, and for a moment, Nix thought it was old times, with Yuri following at Crow's heels, but the woman wasn't Yuri.

The woman was young, too young to be Yuri. Crow turned, "Let me introduce this strapping young lass who was silly enough to volunteer to join me on my annual trek to visit you. This is Moriko, Yuri's eldest."

Moriko gave a shy wave to the women at the table.

"She has a lovely way with animals, and has even convinced the Alcen's to let her ride on them. Let me tell you, it made the trip far quicker, although I'm not certain my thighs have hurt this much since I spent that night with your local stone cutter, what's her name? Lily, Lin..."

Nix blushed for everyone in the room. "Crow, that's more than we ever needed to know about you and Theresa."

"It's nice to meet you, Moriko," Selene spoke up, grinning despite herself at the two visitors. Crow had always managed to make her laugh. "Please come in and take a seat. I'll see about getting you something to drink. How are your people doing, Crow?" She got up off her seat and pulled another chair to the table for them.

Moriko couldn't help the blush that came to her cheeks as the Queen addressed her. "Th-th-thank you, it-it's nice to me-meet you too." She grabbed a chair next to Crow, feeling somewhat less visible in the woman's shadow.

Crow just laughed heartily and slapped Nix on the back before taking a seat. "Oh the same·we drink, we fight to keep warm in the snow, and manage to mine some ore now and then."

"I think we have some tea, if you would like some?" Selene moved to the stove, aware that she wasn't doing a good job at being a happy, graceful hostess today.

"So where is my favorite little ankle bitter?" Crow asked, looking around for Cassia.

Pouring tea for their guests, Selene's arm suddenly shook at the question, spilling the hot liquid everywhere. "Sorry." She quickly grabbed an old rag to sop up the spill. "I'm clumsy this morning, it seems." She smiled faintly, the expression not reaching her eyes.

"Hey, hey, there," Crow said in a gentle tone, seeing Selene's distress. Looking at her long time friend, she saw the lines of stress in Nix's face and the same sort of sadness in her eyes. "Okay, what's up?"

Nix shot a glance over at Moriko before looking back at Crow. She was sure the girl was trustworthy, but still, this was private.

Feeling every year of her age, and certain that she had more silver hair than she had the day before, Selene retook her own seat, gazing sadly into her own cup of tea.

Crow got the hint and turned in her chair to addressed Yuri's eldest. "Why don't you go water and brush down the Alcens. Nix has a water pump out back.

The young woman looked offended for a second, but sighed and got up. "You could just say you wanted some privacy," she muttered as she left.

"Thank you, Moriko," Selene called after the young woman, feeling horrible that they'd just asked a guest to leave, but relieved at the same time.

After the door shut, Crow looked at Selene and then Nix. "So what's up with Cassia that has you looking like your Alcen died and you still have a bag of ore to deliver?"

Reaching across the table, Selene took her lover's hand for comfort. "Cassia is... going through a phase." She hoped that was it, but she wasn't sure.

Nix let out a breath and looked at Selene. "She's acting like one of the overseers," she blurted out.

Crow chewed on her lip. "Runt, I think you're blowing things out of proportion. No one can be that selfish, spoiled, and cruel." She looked back and forth from parent to parent.

"I don't know about cruel, but she's certainly got the other two down. And..." She ducked her head, ashamed of the way she had been reacting to her daughter's behavior. "·and I'm probably not helping any. I grabbed her the other day and all wanted to do was throw her over my knee and swat her good."

Crow just chewed on her bottom lip in thought.

"Maybe that would have actually helped." Selene twisted her lips in a grimace.

Silver eyebrows rose in surprise. Selene was the nicest, non-violent person she knew.

"And now she has it in her head she wants to be married to some mooncalf. She's only sixteen, for crying out loud! I'm certain Sable's parents are behind that," Nix continued on, giving her love's hand a gentle squeeze. "Crow, can you talk to her? Anytime we try we just end up yelling at each other and she runs off."

"Well...I mean..." She sighed, seeing their hopeful looks. "I suppose it couldn't hurt."

"Thank you, Crow, thank you so much. You've always managed to talk to her, she likes you. Maybe you can get her to think this through and see why it's not a good idea?" Selene looked hopeful. It actually was a horrible idea, from a political point of view.

"Sable's mothers wouldn't happen to be a couple of merchant traders, rich and kind of snotty." When Nix nodded, Crow just sighed. "I can see why they think it would be a good idea, it would be a great political match for them, and then they could really control trade."

Nix smiled and leaned over, hugging the woman who was like a sister to her. "Thanks."

"The other families would never agree to Cassia leading them if she did this. It would be horrible." Selene looked worried again.

"Yeah, yeah·let the grumpy old woman talk to the hormonal teenager. Why don't you two take the day off and go spend some time at that swimming hole you're both so fond of. I'll stay here and wait for my favorite ankle biter."

Nix smiled and got up and began moving around the small kitchen packing a haphazard picnic lunch. Perhaps they could get away for a bit and pretend they had no worries.

"Thank you, Crow." Selene got up. Pausing by their friend's chair, she leaned down to give her a swift hug. "I know she'll listen to you."

Crow snorted. They really were innocents in a land of teenagers if they thought that. "I'll talk. Who knows if she'll listen?"

"That's all we can ask." The smaller woman smiled, for the first time in the last day feeling a little better. Together, she and Nix left to give Crow her chance.

Alone in the house, Crow eased up to her feet. Her back and her knees gave loud, alarming pops, and she winced. Looking around, she spied a bottle of amber wine that she had given to the Runt and Selene two winters ago. Deciding it was a right shame it was still unopened, she eased the cork out and poured herself a glass. The front door opened and Moriko looked in. "Since the adults are gone, can I come in now?"

Crow looked at her over her glass. "No. You can go chop up that wood we spied outside of Nix's forge. I'm sure the royal couple would like that."

Moriko stuck out her tongue. "For the last time, I'm sorry I set the barn on fire, but it was an accident."

Crow snorted and sipped her wine. Sighing in pleasure, she shooed the young woman out the door.

Outside, Cassia stalked towards the front of the smithy with what she thought were determined steps. She was going to make her parents see that she was in love with Sable and that they were going to be married! She was going to show them that this was right, and then they would have to agree with it.

That determined stride was brought up short as she spotted a stranger chopping the wood she should have chopped two days ago now. "Who are you?" she demanded, changing direction and striding towards Moriko.

The stocky blonde paused at the question, and bristled at the tone, not liking it one bit. She thought about answering, but figured the best thing to do would be to ignore the rude person; she was a guest, after all. She brought the axe back up then down, splitting the log. She cleared it off and set another piece up to be split.

"Hey!" Not used to someone not answering her questions, Cassia kicked the log, making it topple off before Moriko could bring up her axe. "I asked you a question. Who are you? What are you doing at my parents' home?"

"Ar-ar-are you nuts·I-I could have chopped your foot off!" Moriko blew the too long blond bangs out of her face.

"But you didn't." Cassia frowned annoyed that this other woman was the same height as she was. How was she supposed to look down at someone that wasn't shorter than her? Trying to figure that out distracted Cassia for a moment or two, but she was as stubborn as her mother, and wasn't about to let herself be sidetracked. "Now, who are you?"

In a corner by the house, an Alcen watched the exchange amused.

Brown-eyes narrowed and she drew herself up to her full height, which was still a half-inch shorter than the other girl. "I'm Moriko. I'm visiting the Queen and her partner with my Fire Sister, Crow."

Blue eyes that were definitely inherited from Nix lit up at the mention of Crow. "Crow's here?" Eagerly, she looked around for the older woman.

Moriko sighed, picked up the log and placed it back on the chopping block. "She's in the house...mooncalf." She muttered the last part under her breath.

Cassia took two steps towards the house before she heard the last part. "What?" She whirled around, blonde hair, like Selene's, getting in the way of a marvelous snit and ruining the moment. Brushing it angrily out of her face, she stared at the other girl, face red with anger. "Why don't you just keep chopping wood, you·you·servant!" She turned and ran towards the house.

Moriko thought of several good comebacks, only after the girl had run into the house. She sighed and went back to chopping wood, feeling somewhat jealous that Crow would prefer to spend time with that nasty, spoiled brat than her.

A screech of a hawk got her attention and she looked up, to see a beautiful black-tailed hawk land on top of the uncut wood. "Did you see all that, Talon?" He just bobbed his head, so she took that as a yes. Setting down the axe, she walked over and stroked the top of his head.

The hawk just fluffed his feathers in response.

"Crow!" Cassia ran towards the other woman, happy to see her friend. It had been more than a year since her last visit to the city.

Crow was examining her second glass of wine, the muted rays of weak spring sunshine creeping through the window in the kitchen more than enough to see by. She looked up to see a beautiful young woman.

"Hey there·" She set the glass down and hugged the young woman tightly, unlike years past, when she would pick her up and swing her around, her back wouldn't put up with that anymore.

She let go and looked at Cassia. "Look at you. You're growing up beautifully. I think you've grown another inch."

"You didn't send word that you were coming," Cassia chided after hugging the older woman hard. She blushed at the compliment, grinning a little shyly. "You always say I've grown another inch. I'm taller than Selene now, but Nix is still taller than I am."

"Well, I say it Îcause it's true, but I don't think you'll outgrow the Runt, I mean, your mother. And I would have sent word, but Moriko talked me into riding the Alcens rather than walking beside them, letting them carry all the gear. I think we beat the messenger." She ruffled Cassia's bangs and sat back down slowly, her knees popped and she winced.

"Moriko..?" Those blue eyes narrowed as Cassia's mood switched in the sudden swings that teenagers have. "Is that the annoying girl outside? She's very rude." The teenager plopped down on one of the kitchen chairs with the boneless grace of the young.

"Really, I've never noticed her to be rude." She hid her grin behind her glass of wine. "She's always respectful to her elders, but she can be shy around those her own age."

Those blue eyes studied the older woman then Cassia smiled with a burst of near manic happiness as she decided to ignore the girl outside in favor of more important news. "I have the most wonderful news, Crow. I'm going to get married!"

Yet again, silver eyebrows shot up into her hairline in surprise, "Really?"

Cassia nodded happily. "Her name is Sable. I don't know if you met her yet, but she's perfect. She likes everything I do and we get along perfectly."

She set her glass down. "That's a huge step. I, myself, was never one to find marriage appealing. You know, there are women down south that I haven't even met yet." She wiggled her eyebrows.

Cassia laughed. "Crow, I have to get married. That's what they expect of me."

"Well, of course, but I don't think they're expecting it of you right now. I mean, you haven't even met every available young lady out there. How can you be certain this Sable is the one? You could meet someone tomorrow, or next winter, who's even better for you, but then you'd be in a mess Îcause you'd be married to Sable and unhappy."

The teenager set her jaw in a way that was almost eerily similar to Nix when she was being stubborn. "I love Sable. I'm not going to meet anyone better than she is for me."

Crow raised her glass and sipped it. "Okay, don't worry about that, it's my own marriage bias speaking." She set her glass down. "So, if you didn't have these expectations, what do you want to do? If you could do anything or be anything, what would it be? No one said you'd have to be Queen, your parents are young, they could pop out another ankle biter."

"They aren't that young." Cassia folded her arms, scowling a little. "What do you mean want to do? I have to follow Selene and be the next Queen, that's what I have to do."

Crow sighed. "You're talking about have to, not what you want to do. If you don't want to be Queen, I can smuggle you out of here, take you up north with me." She grinned. "I can teach you how to drink and fight proper, not this wussy stuff they call fighting down here."

The younger woman looked down, for the first time looking a touch unsure about something. That passed quickly, and she looked up again with the arrogance of youth.

"I'm not really good at fighting, but that's not what I'm meant to become."

Crow blew out breath. "So, neither of your folks is good at fighting. Although, your mother once fought the God Korgon, but from what I understand, she wasn't very good at it."

Cassia grinned. "She says she really sucked at it. Besides, don't I get to order people to do fighting for me if I'm Queen?"

She stared at the young girl, "So you're okay with ordering folks to go out and kill and die for you."

The teenager blinked·a surprised look on her face very much like the one that Selene sometimes got. "What? No, I mean...not like that. I just mean they can fight...umm and I can't." People actually dying hadn't factored into her thoughts. There had never been blood or dead people in her daydreams.

The older woman scratched her ear and thought hard; the sweet, thoughtful girl she knew a year ago had to still be inside. "When someone picks up a sword or an axe, you have to accept the fact someone will get hurt and might even die. It's the way of things."

"Oh." Cassia looked a little crestfallen. "Well, then maybe I'll ban all swords and axes. Then nobody can get hurt." She looked a little cheerier at that idea.

Crow rolled her eyes. "Then how will you fight off thieves, bandits, greenbacks, and wolves?"

The cheer was replaced with the beginnings of a sulk. "Well, then, I guess people have to die, right?"

The older woman clapped her on the back. "Not so easy to do what your Muanya does, now, is it?"

Cassia rolled her eyes. "It's not that hard. She just talks to people all the time."

Crow sipped her drink and realized they were off topic, she was supposed to be working on the whole Sable, marriage issue. "So, back to Sable· You and she are perfect for each other?"

The sulk disappeared like the morning mist being burnt off by the sun. "Yes. She's perfect for me and I'm perfect for her. We even finish each other's sentences sometimes!"

That wasn't cute in Crow's opinion, it was creepy. "So you like the same things? She likes to wrestle, make pretty things with metal, and lie outside and stare at the stars."

Cassia blushed and looked down at the table, drawing things on its surface with the rings of water left from the teapot. "I don't wrestle anymore, only kids do that, it's not dignified." She didn't even touch the make things with metal part.

"And she would fight for you·protect you from harm, even if it meant giving up being queen?" Crow continued on undaunted.

"Of course," Cassia jutted out her chin defiantly. She had complete trust that Sable would do anything to protect her.

Crow tapped her chin in thought. "Good. You know, she may need to complete some tasks to prove that. Just so the other clans are happy. You know us sisters of fire like a good fighter, and we'd feel better following some we know can protect our Queen."

"Tasks, what sort of tasks? I've never heard of that before." Cassia looked skeptical and a touch worried.

"Well, this is new territory·we've never really been free to rule ourselves before. But you've got those ship builders northeast of here and us to the north. And to the south those tree huggers guarding the path through the mountains, then the folks here with your mother. They all need to feel comfortable with who's ruling them." Crow spun her words carefully. "So a few tasks to show how capable your Sable is to rule at your side should make everyone happy. And I bet your folks would like her better knowing she's able to take care of you and herself."

That made a sort of logic to Cassia, though not a kind of logic that she particularly liked. "What sort of tasks would they be? I'm sure that Sable can handle anything that you ask her to do."

"I don't know, one of courage, wits, strength, and loyalty." Crow swirled her drink and clapped Cassia on the back before taking a sip. "Nothing your Sable can't handle."

"She'll beat any task that you set in front of her." Cassia stood up and started towards the door. "I'll go tell her now so she can start to get ready. When will the tasks start?"

Crow shrugged, "Soon."

The teen paused then rushed back to give her Aunt Crow a hug, "I am really happy you're here. You can talk sense into my mothers, I'm sure of it."

Crow chuckled. "I've been trying to talk sense into the Runt for years."

The younger woman laughed, hugging her aunt tight then bounding towards the door. "I'll go tell Sable. You have to get everyone to agree so that Sable can win the tasks and we can be married!" The blonde burst through the doors into the courtyard outside the smithy.

Moriko was exhausted, but the wood was all chopped. She was tired and sweaty, and she really wanted to go inside, but she didn't really want to be stuck inside with that spoiled brat.

Actually dealing with people really wasn't one of her strengths, unlike her mother, Yuri. She got along better with animals; they didn't want things other than food and an occasional scratch.

Cassia's bound outside was abruptly turned into what she thought was a more serious step as she realized that annoying other girl was still here. "Are you done yet?" She covered her embarrassment at being caught doing something child-like with an angry barb.

Just about, it wasn't that much. Nix's helper must be really lazy.

"Well, some people are good at this sort of thing, and others are good at ordering them around," Cassia snipped over her shoulder, cheek's red from embarrassment. She was well aware of the fact that it was usually her chore to chop the wood.

Moriko snorted. "As my Muanya says, those who can't shout orders, and eventually someone will wipe their ass."

"You·you·Alcen lover..!" It was the best comeback that Cassia could come up with then she fled the courtyard, refusing to let the annoying girl ruin her good mood, she had better people to talk with. Now all she had to do was find Sable. She would probably be down by the river playing with the other girls.


Nix sat under a great tree, feeling relaxed and happy for the first time in a while. The small pool of still water next to the river was her favorite spot, it was where Selene had taught her to swim, and in truth, to love. "We should get away more often," she said softly.

The woman who was using her lap as a pillow smiled up at her then returned to her own contemplation of the slow moving expanse of water. Out further, one of the newer two-masted ships sailed past, its crew laboring up in the masts to set the sails. "We just kind of forgot to, I guess. Things were always busy." Selene sighed, closing her eyes to enjoy the warm body she was almost laying on top of. "It seems like just a little while ago we were in that tent with Willow."

Nix blushed. "Despite the way I've been acting, I don't regret a moment of it. She was truly a wonder. Now I wonder were the little girl who used to follow me everywhere went to." One of her massive hands stroked her love's face then moved to light brown hair, content to run her fingers through it.

They were both silent for a little while, simply enjoying the closeness and the relaxation. "Did I ever tell you that I was jealous that you got to give birth to her?" Selene suddenly asked.

Nix frowned slightly. "No, but once things calmed down, you should have said something, love. We could have had another." Then she laughed as she tried to figure out how they would have managed it. When Cassia was two, her assistant Gina had moved down to Abnoa to be the smith, leaving her the duty as the town smith and Selene as its Queen. "Maybe not· We barely had time to raise one."

Selene shook her head, reaching up to stroke Nix's cheek. "I got over it. I was worried that you'd always be closer to her, that I'd be some sort of outsider when she was born." That hadn't been the case.

"Never· Remember how scared I was of holding her. Always afraid I'd crush her in my too large hands, or drop her." Nix smiled wistfully.

"I keep telling you, your hands are perfect, they suit you." Selene captured one of those hands and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. "Remember the first time she was sick? How terrified I was? We woke Willow up in the middle of the night to come see her."

A deep belly laugh came out of Nix. "It was only a cold. Eh, remember when she took her first steps, I missed them, but you were there. Then she was walking, zipping around the house, and I had to baby proof it."

"Don't forget the forge. We couldn't keep her out of there. Remember how much she would cry if you wouldn't take her with you? She was your little shadow all the time." Her smile was bittersweet. How things had changed since then.

For a moment Nix thought she might cry, she did remember that. "I got a letter back from Gina. Her first born is ready to leave the nest and start her own forge. I've offered to take her on for a year, and if she works out, she'll take the forge." The words felt like ash on her tongue, but the town needed a smith, and she wasn't getting any younger. "I had hoped to keep it in the family, but I can't wait on Cassia. The town will need a smith, and it's getting harder and harder to lift that hammer some days."

"Oh, love." The smaller woman sat up, pulling the larger woman into a hug. "She's still our little girl, somewhere under there. She's just having trouble now."

Nix nodded not doubting Selene's words, it was just so hard sometimes, and hugged her lover tightly to her.


Cassia sprinted down the well-worn dirt path that led down towards the river's edge. Already she could hear the voices of her friends calling out to one another, laughing and shrieking as they played in and around the water's edge. This was their swimming hole, the Firstborns, as they called themselves. Even some of the adults had started to call them that, as if it was a badge of honor that marked them apart from every other generation that would follow.

The tall blonde sprinted out of the tree line, grinning at the warm summer sunlight that engulfed her, blinding her for a moment. "Sable!" she yelled happily, squinting into the sun to search for the other firstborn.

Sable rolled over on her side where she had been showing off the new fabric her parents had imported from the South. She raised a soft hand and waved, "Over here."

"You won't believe it!" The youngster leapt over a log and plopped down on her knees in the soft sand of the beach, grinning. Other girls were starting to draw closer, drawn in by the obvious excitement in Cassia's voice and face. "Something really good happened."

"You two are going to stop making goo-goo eyes at each other," Kealey shouted from the river, sending a splash of water to punctuate her point.

Sable made a face at Kealey, whom she really didn't like much. No matter how much status she got from dating the next Queen, Kealey would merely point out that she was the first firstborn. Sable hated feeling inferior. Her mothers told her that they were better than everyone else, and that she would always get what she deserved in life. Kealey hadn't gotten the memo, the girl refusing to bow or treat her with respect just because she was the firstborn.

Cassia wrinkled her nose in annoyance at the older girl. "No." She rolled her eyes and looked back at Sable. "Aunt Crow came to town. She's going to talk to my mothers, they'll listen to her. She'll make them understand that you and are meant for one another!"

Sable let out a shriek that had a few of the others rolling their eyes. "That's great. It's good to know at least one of those fire dancing muscle heads has a brain." She hugged Cassia and kissed her cheeks. "I'm going to be a Queen. I like the sound of that, don't you?"

Cassia bit her lip and nodded, trying to figure out how to break the condition. "Well...you have to do some sort of trial thing to make sure the other families will follow you, of course." She tried to rush it in there during the hug.

Sable promptly ended the hug and held her girlfriend out at arms length. "What?"

The blonde gave her a bit of a weak smile. This wasn't going quite as she'd thought it would, and she struggled for the words to make it better. "It's just a couple of trials so that the fire warriors will follow you, and those ship building fanatics, and of course those people down in the woods." It sounded reasonable to Cassia.

"They should follow me because you tell them to," Sable sniped. "I'm not doing any such stupid trial just to make some tree hugging, over muscled, water fanatics happy."

Kealey stomped out of the water and grabbed her clothes. "What a baby?" she snapped. "I'm out of here. My folks probably need some help at the Inn." She dried off and got dressed.

Sable turned and glared at the older girl. "You can't talk that way to me. I'm going to be a Queen."

"Not if you don't stop crying about what you want. Geez, the only stuff that ever comes out of your mouth is, you, you, you. I would have dumped your ass by now." With her piece said, the older girl walked off.

Cassia looked a little trouble as she watched the oldest of the firstborns leave. "Sable, it's not going to be horrible. You just have to prove to everyone that you're perfect to be with me as Queen." The beginnings of a frown started as she wondered if maybe she was getting into something she didn't completely understand.

Sable's mouth hung open as she looked at Cassia. Then her eyes narrowed and her mouth snapped shut. "I'm going home. When you are ready to talk sense and not these stupid trials then come see me." Sable didn't say anything further. Instead, she just grabbed her stuff and marched off.

Some of the other girls just snickered and whispered about trouble in paradise.

Her lower lip trembled for a moment then Cassia straightened her back and walked as fast as she could into the forest, tears threatening as the joy from earlier had completely burned away, leaving behind a cold, empty feeling.

The second she was in the trees and away from prying eyes, she sprinted through the forest, running as fast as she could from what she was sure was the most horrible thing that had ever happened to her.


Moriko stood in the forest enjoying the silence. She had snuck away after the royal couple had returned, certain that she wouldn't be allowed in the house because they would be talking grown up things. Just because her mother was Yuri, she sometimes thought folks didn't take her seriously.

For crying out loud, she was two months away from eighteen! Then again, she probably didn't want to be in the middle of whatever was going on. She had boarded the Alcens in a stable and had come out here to enjoy the freedom with Talon. Looking up, she spied him circling. She then let loose a sharp whistle and held out her leather covered arm.


Cassia ran until her legs burned and her lungs heaved, tears streaming unheeded from her eyes. They blurred her vision, and it was a miracle she didn't run headlong into a tree. Only the fact that she knew the island like the back of her hand let her run through the paths nearly sightless, which was how she plowed into the shape that suddenly appeared in front of her around one of the tall trees at the northern edge of the island at nearly full speed, slamming into her and sending them both tumbling to the ground.

One moment Moriko had her brown eyes trained on Talon, the next, she was face down in the dirt. Slowly, she sat up spitting out dirt. Spying a body on the ground next to her, she stammered out, "Hey, are-are y-y-you okay?"

The younger girl curled into a ball, crying all the harder now that she had stopped running. Hugging her knees to her chest, Cassia shook her head. "Go away," she groaned miserably.

Talon lighted on to a tree branch above their heads and gave a harsh cry. Moriko shrugged at Talon, not sure what he wanted her to do about it. His feathers puffed up and he looked at her reproachfully. She sighed. "Are y-y-you hurt?" she asked softly.

Cassia rolled over and bit out through her tears, I'm fine.

Moriko almost blurted out "oh, it's you," but to her credit, she held her tongue. "Well, that's good. That you're not hurt, I mean." She stood up and held out a hand.

The younger girl stayed where she was, curled upon the ground and staring up at the northerner. "You'd tell me the truth, wouldn't you?"

"Huh?" She looked at Talon for help, but the great bird just sat and preened his feathers. "Well, yes. Not much use in lying. It just makes the world more complicated." She retracted her hand and brushed the dirt and leaves off her and sat down, having a gut feeling this was going to take awhile.

"Do you think Sable loves me?" Cassia looked like a lost little girl, and she felt like one too.

"Um, well, I'm not really sure who Sable is. I'm not even really sure who you are, but I'm going to go out on a limb and assume she's your girlfriend." She scratched her earlobe in a nervous gesture, and wished her Muanya was here, she was good at these hurting heart talks.

Cassia blinked, staring at the other girl in surprise. She'd never met someone who didn't know who she was before. "I'm Cassia. Selene and Nix are my mothers." She shifted until she was sitting on the ground, still looking up at the other girl.

For a second, Moriko froze in surprise. She'd been mouthing off to the princess, but a spoiled brat was a spoiled brat, Goddess save them. "You're mothers are really nice," she offered. "I'm Moriko, my mothers are Yuri and Pax of the sisters of flame."

"Yuri?" She had heard that name before from her mother. "I think Nix said she had a friend named Yuri." Her eyes narrowed as she remembered why she was there. "Do you think Sable loves me?" she asked again.

"I don't know. I've never met Sable. But I guess the real question is why do you doubt she does?" She held out her leather-covered arm and Talon hopped down on to it, his feet digging into the leather. Gently, she stroked his head, feeling more at ease with him around. Now, if only she could get him to answer the question of love.

Blue eyes clouded over with the memory of the past few minutes. "She won't go try to win Crow's trials to be with me." Even as besotted as she was, Cassie knew that wasn't a good sign.

"Um..." Moriko had no idea what these trials were, or how to even respond. "Well...perhaps she just needs time. Love isn't always easy, like they say in stories." She should know, her parents fought all the time. It didn't help that Yuri, was, well, Yuri.

Cassia looked a little more hopeful at that. Maybe she was right. Maybe all that Sable needed was a little more time. There was an irritating inner voice that didn't think that was true, but she could ignore that voice for now.

"Maybe·" Cautiously, the younger girl got up, wiping at her cheeks to get rid of the tears that still lingered there. "Sorry." She suddenly realized she hadn't said anything yet. "About running into you, I mean."

"It's okay. You were upset." Perhaps the girl wasn't such a brat after all. She shook Talon off her arm and he launched himself with an indignant squawk.

"I've never seen someone handle a bird like that." Cassia squinted into the sunlight, trying to see the bird as he flew upwards to roost on one of the nearby trees. "What is he?"

"He's a Black-tailed Hawk, Îcause he's got black tail feathers. I've had Talon since he fell out of his nest, nursed him best I could. His mother wouldn't take him back." She lifted her other arm, the one without the leather protection, showing off fine white scars from where the mother had attacked her when she had tried to put him back. "My mother told me it was silly, that she would defend her nest and not care that he fell out. But I was a silly girl and didn't listen."

Cassia awkwardly scratched her arm, feeling embarrassed and still emotionally on edge from her crying and from someone seeing it. Biting her lip, she looked down from the bird in the tree. "I'm also sorry I called you a servant," she mumbled. She'd been angry at the time. Now she just felt stupid.

That one statement floored Moriko, who pursed her lips. "I'm not your servant. Just because you may be Queen one day doesn't give you the right to belittle me or demand respect when you haven't earned it." It was roughly the same speech her Muanya had given her Mother a few years ago, without the Queen part, but she felt it was okay to borrow right now. "But saying you're sorry helps," she added softly, feeling she may have been a little harsh.

The younger girl sniffed, brushing at her eyes, annoyed at the tears that threatened again. "I know." She did know, but sometime she just forgot and went along with what the others told her. It was always easier that way. "I guess I should leave you be." She bit her lip, trying to think of where else she could go. She didn't want to go home yet, not to face her parents.

Moriko got up and offered a hand to Cassia. "You don't want to go home looking all upset. Your moms will just get bent out of shape and get in your business."

This time Cassia took the offered hand up, looking at the other girl a little suspiciously. Could she actually be trying to be friendly? "Your moms do that too?"

"Well, they used to, but I'm the eldest of five, and well, Yuri is Yuri." Her mother had a wandering eye, which was sometimes followed by wandering hands, nothing serious, but enough to cause a lot of stress in her house. "You're welcome to hang out with me for a bit, until you feel ready to go back."

The younger girl gave a one-shouldered shrug then nodded. "Thanks." She started to walk alongside Moriko, studying the other girl with frequent sideways glances. "You have four sisters? That must be fun." Cassia had always wondered what it would be like to have sisters. To have someone to share all her worries and hopes with, to stay up late whispering secrets long past bedtime.

"It can be, but mostly I feel overwhelmed. It's a small house, you can't even find space to change your mind, let alone change your clothes. I like it out here in the forest; it's quiet, and peaceful." At home, she often slept in the barn just to give her younger sisters that much more space.

"What's it like up north? Aunt Crow says I should go visit, but I've never gone yet. I don't think my Muanya likes the idea of me going alone up there." Selene sometimes got a little too worried and protective for Cassia's liking.

Moriko stopped moving and gave out a piercing whistle, and in a second, Talon was landing on the outstretched arm. "The mountains are steeper, and it stays colder longer. We're a little rougher around the edges than the women here. A lot of the older women live to mine, it's all they know, and it gives them some happiness."

Cassia stopped moving when she did, watching the bird land on her arm. He looked regal and wild, his gaze piercing and defiant. "Can I touch him?"

She pulled out a small pebble sized piece of dried meat and gave it to Talon, who nibbled at her fingers for a second before taking it. "Sure. Make sure he can see your hand coming. Otherwise he might get startled." She crooned softly and stroked his back.

Entranced with the bird, Cassia stepped closer, and very slowly moved her hand towards the hawk, making sure that the bird could see it coming. Gently, she stroked a feather along the bird's shoulder, grinning widely as he let her touch him. "He's letting me stroke his feathers," she murmured in wonder.

"That he is," Moriko said with a smile. Talon spread his wings and puffed up his feathers, but seemed content with the attention. "He's almost trained where he'll bring me his kills most of the time. Sometimes he's greedy and keeps them for himself." Not that she minded; he wasn't a pet.

Cassia let her hand drop from the bird and started to walk again, wondering what it would be like to have such a talent with animals. "So you aren't going to become a miner then, I guess?"

Moriko made a face. "I couldn't stand to be shut up inside a mountainside." In fact, just thinking about it made her sweat. "I prefer the woods."

"What would you want to do, then? Would you go south through the mountain pass and be with those others who wander through the woods all the time?" Even if Selene and Nix thought she didn't pay attention, she did listen when they both talked of their days at dinnertime.

Moriko shrugged, "Maybe. My Muanya wants me to stay up north and help her tame and train Alcens." She didn't really want that. In fact, she was enjoying being away from her mothers.

Cassia let out a long-suffering sigh and turned around, starting to walk in the general direction of the town. "Why do we always have to be something? Why do they keep bugging us about what we're going to become? Can't we just enjoy what we are right now?"

Moriko followed silently, thinking. "I don't know. You, I can understand. When your mothers are gone you'll be the one leading us. They have to worry about your happiness and that of the whole north; must be hard for them."

The dark-haired girl spun around having gone a little ways. "What if I don't want to be the queen? Everyone assumes I will be, that I have to be, but what if I don't want to be? What if I'm no good at it?" The last part came out as a whispered question, and Cassia wrapped her arms around herself. She hadn't meant to say those things, not even Sable had heard those doubts before.

Moriko looked up at Talon, who was circling, keeping pace with them. She bit her lip, thinking about how to respond. "Sounds like, you need to talk to them. They don't know how you feel, they can't help. Your parents seem nice."

In the age-old tradition of all teenagers, Cassia snorted and started walking again. "That's because they aren't your parents." She glanced sideways at the other girl. "Are you staying at our place?"

Moriko snorted and ducked her head, her blonde hair covering her face. "You could have mine. Um, I think Crow is. I'll probably sleep in the barn with the Alcens."

"In the barn..?" Cassia looked horrified by the thought. "No way...you're cool. You could sleep in my room if you want? There's room on the floor." She babbled on a bit, hoping she didn't sound like a moron.

Moriko blushed, never having been in close quarters with anyone other than her sisters. "No, the barn's fine. I sometimes sleep in the barn at home. It's not a big deal."

The other girl shrugged, "Fine. But trust me, inside is more comfortable." Of course, her mothers might not be very keen on someone sleeping in her room. "Come on, it's probably almost dinner time. We should get back."

"You go on, I'm going to go hunt with Talon. I'll bring back some rabbits." She whistled and held out her arm, the one covered in the thick leather.

The hawk swooped down and landed gracefully, his feet digging into the leather, scoring it.

For an instant the younger girl looked torn. She'd love to watch the hawk hunt for rabbits. Sighing, she decided she probably would be killed if she skipped showing up for dinner tonight. "Fine·I'll see you later." She would have much rather have faced the adults with some back up, but she was on her own it seemed.

Moriko watched her go, lightly stroking Talon's feathers. She liked this woman she'd met, and hoped that this Cassia was one she would see more of, not the spoiled brat from before.


"I think Crow is onto something. We can make it so that anyone who wants to be married to our little girl has to go through some sort of trials." Selene liked this idea. They could weed out anyone who was a bad choice, like Sable. "I hope Willow will go along with this, though." She looked up anxiously at the taller woman walking alongside her towards the still under construction temple. It would take generations before that building was finished.

"What?" Nix said looking at Crow. "What if Sable completes these trials? We'll have to accept her."

"Runt, it was the best I could come up with. Plus, if she does complete the trials, don't you think that will prove to you that maybe she is right for your little one. Maybe you're wrong about Sable," Crow said with a sigh, using her walking stick to help her walk, and wincing as her back protested.

Nix snorted, but relented as her love gently rubbed her back. "I guess. Let's talk to Willow."

The High Priestess had been one of the younger women to make the Exodus, and she still retained some of that youth. No silver hair graced her head yet, although her eyes held more wisdom than they had all those years ago when they had first come here. She was sitting by the entrance to the temple, feet stretched out in front of her, watching the beginnings of what promised to be a spectacular sunset.

As always, Selene smiled at the sight of her long time friend. "Watching the sky again, Willow?" she teased as they drew closer.

The high priestess grinned, getting up and dusting off her simple robes. "Someone has to keep an eye out for more glowing rocks falling to the earth." The priestess bowed as she saw the guest who was walking along with them. "Hello, Crow, it is good to see you again."

"As always, a pleasure, Priestess· So, has the Goddess told you anything exciting lately?" Crow asked, tilting her head, her back not letting her bow anymore.

Willow smiled, shaking her head. "You know that isn't the Goddess' way." She looked from woman to woman, taking in the lines of stress on their faces. "I take it that this isn't just a visit to say hello?"

Selene shook her head. "It's about Cassia."

Nix nodded, "She came home the other day with some absurd notion that she wanted to marry Sable."

"Runt, perhaps we should go inside Willow's house and away from nosy ears," Crow suggested, clapping Nix on the back, interrupting her before she could go off anymore.

Willow agreed. "Come, please." She led the way to a simple log building that had been built years ago, when it became apparent that someone who had to be present whenever a woman wanted to become pregnant needed something better than just a tent. Willow wasn't the only priestess these days. Waving away an acolyte who had opened the door, she led the three other women into a sitting room inside.

"Kristin, why don't you go make sure we have enough candles for tomorrow's service," she sent the young woman off. "Please sit and rest. Can I get anyone something to drink or eat?"

Three heads shook.

Crow slowly sat down, her knees giving a loud crack. And then with a sigh, she sat. "It's hell getting old," she said, simply.

Selene took a seat next to Nix, taking a large hand in her own for strength and support.

Willow nodded. "Something that we will all experience, I fear. Before you go, let me give you some herbs that may help with your back. Now, what is this about Cassia getting married?"

"She thinks she's in love with Sable and wants to marry her." Selene looked genuinely upset at the idea.

"Sable's a mooncalf. And even if Cassia wasn't going to be queen, I wouldn't want her to marry that girl," Nix broke in.

"Is it possible that she is in love with her?" Willow folded her hands on the table top, not voicing her own opinion of Sable.

"She's a big walking hormone, she's a teenager, and of course Cassia thinks she's in love with this Sable," Crow said reasonably. "But the problem is that, from what I understand, Sable would be a pretty poor choice as a co-ruler. Because we have more than the whim of a young woman, we have the future of the north to consider."

"If I thought for an instant that Sable would make her happy, I wouldn't be this upset about it," Selene chimed in, hoping her friend saw how bad an idea Sable was.

Willow considered the three of them then nodded, sighing. "If she were any other girl I could try to put off the ceremony until they were older. I assume Sable's parents are pushing for this to go forward?"

"Of course, they think it's great." Nix also was quite aware of the fact that Sable's mothers had been good friends with Laurel. "They have this notion of how a Queen should be. They've been quite vocal of their opinion of the beastly smith who dared to rise above what is respectable," Nix said with disdain.

Selene just gripped Nix's hand tighter at that, having heard those opinions as well.

"You look like someone with a plan over there, old woman," Willow nodded towards Crow, grinning at being able to get away with calling her that after her earlier comment about getting old.

Crow made a face. "Watch it, priestess, I can still pick you up and throw you over my shoulder." She tried to be menacing, but failed. "Yes, I think the solution is a series of tasks, or trials. That way once completed, no one will worry about a woman who wishes to be a...um..." she frowned, looking for a word, "a consort, a Rezan," she smiled, that was a good word, "who wishes to be the Queen's Rezan. It will prove devotion and loyalty."

"And you want me, as High Priestess, to give my blessing to these trials?"

Three heads nodded.

"Who would you have design these trials?" She looked to Crow, giving no indication if she agreed or not with the idea.

Crow looked at Nix and Selene.

"The head families," Selene spoke up. "That way none of them can disagree with who gets chosen if they all had a hand in shaping the trials."

Nix nodded, "That sounds fair. But this isn't open for anyone, just by doing the trial doesn't make you this Rezan. I don't want to force a marriage on my daughter."

Willow considered the idea, finally nodding in assent. "For the good of the future, I will agree. Although I'm not personally comfortable with making someone prove that they love Cassia enough to be with her by going through whatever evil trials you and the others can come up with. Cassia has to agree to whoever attempts the trials, and the rules must be made clear to all before the trials begin, so no one can complain of favoritism."

Nix nodded, biting her lower lip in thought. "It's a tough call, the heart of a young woman or the security of a whole land of people. Unless someone can propose something better, I agree with Crow's idea of the trials."

She wished she had a better idea, but Selene didn't have one. "I'm for it as well."

The priestess bowed her head. "So be it. I'll publicly support it. You do realize we might be setting a precedent here. All Queens' consorts, or Rezan's, might end up having to go through this."

"Would that be such a horrible thing," Selene asked, smiling towards her own mate, "might stop people from complaining?"

"Hopefully they will take it with the heart it is intended, only to prove merit, heart, and metal," Crow said. "Those who rule can not have the same comforts that others have. Was not Selene attacked by an ex-lover, but by a God as well? Unconsciously, I would say Nix proved herself to the Queen and its people."


Cassia tossed and turned in her bed, sighing as the straw shifted under the thicker blanket that was used to hold it down. She heard rumors that the women in the south used feathers to make their beds from. How, she wondered, would sleeping on that feel like; certainly not as lumpy?

With one last disgusted sigh, she flung aside her blanket and got up. Apparently she didn't want to sleep quite yet. The house was silent at this time of night, Selene and Nix having gone to bed hours before.

Getting up, she carefully moved to the single window in her bedroom, careful to avoid any of the creaky floorboards. Sneaking out was something she was an old hand at by now. It took a careful amount of pressure to open the window without causing noise.

Then she had to perch on the window frame and stretch out her leg to catch the nearby tree limb. After, it was a shove and she was in the tree, clinging on tightly before shimmying down it towards the grass below.

With a muffled oof she dropped from the lowest branch onto the grass of the side yard of the smithy. She paused there, ears straining to hear any movement inside the house to indicate she'd been discovered.

Crow, snoring softly, was bedded down by the hearth, the warmth from the still hot embers making her back feel wonderfully relaxed for a change. She snorted as she heard Cassia land outside, but didn't bother to get up. Either the girl was sneaking out to see her girlfriend or to the barn behind the house to see Moriko. She was happy to see the girls had gotten over their differences.

At dinner the two had been civil, almost friendly, and she could only hope that Yuri's shy eldest had made a friend. She felt bad for the girl, knowing that her parents were putting pressure on her to take on more and more responsibilities that, in all honesty, Pax and Yuri should be doing. However, things were what they were, and hopefully Yuri and Pax would ride out this rough patch in their relationship.

With a quiet sigh she rolled over, snuggling under the blanket and enjoying being warm. Perhaps she would stay here with the Runt from now on and sit by the fire and tell rambling, pointless stories to whoever would listen.

Outside the house, Cassia relaxed when she didn't hear any movement from inside. Her blood pumping, as it always did when she snuck out, the teen started towards the path that would lead around the barn and towards the houses beyond. She'd snuck out often over the past few months to go see Sable.

This time, though, her feet slowed as she passed the barn. Without thinking why, she stepped inside, trying to see in the dim moonlight for Moriko. The other girl had insisted she was going to sleep in the barn.

Two shaggy Alcen heads rose up over their enclosure, their liquid brown eyes staring at her before going back to munching on some feed. From the third stall came the sound of light snoring. Moriko was curled up in a bed of straw in a little nest she had made with several blankets. Talon stood on a beam above her, watching everything in the moonlight.

Cassia crept closer, scratching one of the Alcen's on the nose as she passed. Creeping up to the edge of the stall, the blonde whispered, "Moriko?" She called a little louder, "Hey, you awake?" to the snoring woman.

The young woman shot up, her blonde hair wild with bits of straw stuck in it. "I'm sorry. I overslept. I'll get right on my chores," she mumbled out, her eyes not quiet open.

"Hey, it's just me." Cassia stepped closer, worried. "I'm sorry. It's still night."

A brown eye cracked open. "Huh? What?" She rubbed her eyes and the blur in front of her took on a shape. "Oh, hey," she grinned, recognizing Cassia in the dim light of the barn. She frowned, realizing it was still night. "Is-is-is everything okay."

"Yeah·" The other woman rocked back and forth at the edge of the stall, looking worried. This obviously had been a bad idea. "Sorry, I didn't·I mean, I shouldn't have woken you up. I'll go."

Moriko snorted. "Well, I'm up now. So don't just leave." She patted the blanket-covered straw next to her. "What's up?"

"I couldn't sleep, so I decided to share the condition?" Cassia smiled hopefully. She felt like an idiot for waking the other girl up. "You could go back to sleep if you want," she said, climbing up onto the straw.

Moriko just shrugged. "So why couldn't you sleep?" She struggled in the straw for a moment then got comfortable with her back resting against the sideboards.

Flopping down onto the straw with the boneless grace of youth, Cassia squirmed around until she found a comfortable spot staring up at the ceiling above her. "I don't know, couldn't get comfortable, I guess."

Moriko looked at the young princess for a moment before standing up, brushing the straw out of her hair, and held out a hand. "Come on, let's go somewhere with a better view than the ceiling."

The younger girl grabbed the offered hand, getting pulled to her feet. "What did you have in mind?"

"Come on. You'll see." She led Cassia up the ladder to where the straw was kept above the stalls. Then, being young and spry, they were easily able to scrabble out and up to the roof of the barn. Overhead, the moon and the stars twinkled. Moriko laid back on the cool wood of the roof. "That is what I call a better view."

"You're right, it is." Cassia stretched out on the roof, cradling her head in her folded hands. "I used to love laying in the backyard and watching the stars. Selene used to tell me stories about all of the constellations in the sky."

"My Muanya would sit with me at night under the stars when I was little and make up stories. My mother Yuri has never been that fond of the sky, she says it scares her, all that emptiness spanning on forever. Maybe that's why they love their mines so much." She shrugged. "I've always found it peaceful."

"Yeah, Nix never really liked staring up at the sky either, my Muanya said it used to remind her of when she was young and her mother told her stories of a better place." The younger woman let her head shift sideways so she could see Moriko's outline in the starlight. "Can you keep a secret?

Moriko nibbled on her top lip for a moment. "Can you keep a secret?" she asked after a while of pretending to watch the stars.

Cassia burst out, laughing as the two of them asked the same question at the same time, almost. "I promise to never tell your secret if you promise to do the same with mine?"

Moriko nodded seriously. "I would never tell a secret. Well, unless it was a bad secret and someone's life was in danger." Her face had an utterly earnest look to it.

With the same earnest look on her face, Cassia extended the pinky on her left hand. "Shake on it?"

Moriko grinned and extended her pinky as well. "So what's this terrible secret the princess of the north has?" She grinned to show she was teasing.

The younger woman looked around, making sure that no one was around to hear. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "I like buildings."

Moriko snorted, "Who doesn't. Their warmer than tents, and they keep the rain and the snow out."

Cassia laughed, swatting the other girl on the arm. "No. That's not what I meant. I mean, I like drawing them and drawing new ones that haven't been built yet. I keep thinking of all these different things that could be built that could be so much nicer than what we have so far." She paused, biting her lip to see what Moriko would think. Sable had laughed the last time Cassia had started to talk about buildings.

"Sounds like the north will have some nice new buildings once you're Queen," Moriko said, simply. "I'm jealous. I can't draw at all."

"I'm not really good with drawing people or sunsets or things like that." Cassia leaned back, glad that the night was hiding her blush. She didn't know what she had expected, but this outright acceptance wasn't it. "What was your secret?"

Moriko stared straight up into the night sky. "I'm not going back with Crow, when she decides it's time to return."

Cassia rolled onto her side towards Moriko in surprise at that. "What? You aren't going back home, why not?"

She blew out a breath she didn't realize she was holding. "Because..." It seemed silly now. "I'm tired of sleeping in the barn. I'm tired of taking care of my sisters and house. I'm tired of being the adult." She said the last part quietly. She could feel Cassia's eyes on her, but she was scared to look.

The younger girl was silent, not sure what to say to that. Instead, she reached over and took the other girl's hand, squeezing her fingers. "You could stay here. I'm sure there wouldn't be a problem with it. Mother already loves you since you cut the firewood."

"That would be nice." She gently squeezed back. "I like your mothers, they seem nice, and despite Selene being Queen, she makes time for you."

Cassia snorted and looked back up to the sky above them. A streak of light caught her eye and she smiled as a shooting star crossed the night sky. "Selene's not bad, but I can't seem to talk to her or mother anymore. We only get into fights."

Moriko snorted. "That's not fighting. My parents fight; they scream and yell and stomp off in huffs. They love us and each other, but it seems like they forgot how to show it."

"They yell at each other?" Cassia looked over at that, blinking. "I think I only remember one time when my mothers got that angry and I started that."

"Yeah, they forget when they yell at each other everyone can hear them. Yuri was in love with Selene, and my Muanya knows it. It makes her feel insecure, and Yuri forgets that and acts stupid. Then they fight. My Muanya freaks out now when Yuri even looks at another woman." She shrugged and was reminded they were still holding hands. Blushing, she let go.

"Yuri met Selene here in Nix's smithy, and it was love at first sight, according to my mother. According to Crow, Selene only had eyes for Nix, and Yuri never had a chance." She stretched her long arms and legs across the roof wood, before settling back down.

"After your mothers were married, Yuri met my Muanya when she was bringing some ore down. She was having trouble with an Alcen and my Muanya stepped in to help, which was good since Alcens and my mother don't mix." She snorted. Yuri was hopeless with any animal.

"So you take after your mother?" Cassia propped her head up on one hand so she could look at her new acquaintance. "I've never met anyone who's so good with animals before. You should try to teach others. I'm sure people would love to learn how to handle animals like that."

"I have a little bit." She shrugged, bashful at the praise, and yawned. "It's not that hard, you treat the animal well and it will want to please you."

"People are like that too," Cassia murmured, her eyes slipping closed a little as she lay on the roof. It was a nice night, even if it was a bit cool out. Her insomnia from earlier had fled and she smiled sleepily.

Moriko sat up and poked Cassia. "You should keep that in mind. Come on·let's climb down before we fall asleep."

She groaned in protest, but sat up as well. "Are you saying I'm not nice to people?" Her attempt to sound upset was hampered by a yawn midway through her question.

"You weren't the first time we met." The other girl grinned to take away the sting of her words. "But you're getting better."

Cassia had the good graces to look ashamed. "Sorry. I was being a bit of a brat, wasn't I?"

"A bit· She held up a thumb and index finger to show how much then swung down onto the hayloft.

Letting out an annoyed huff, the younger girl followed her down into the hay. "You aren't going to let me get away with anything, are you?"

"Hey, I could treat you like my Alcens when they misbehave. Trust me, I'm being nice."

Eyeing her warily, Cassia followed her down into the main stable area. "What do you do to your Alcens when they misbehave?"

"Depends on what they do. Normally it's a smack on the nose. Since it's sensitive, they don't like that. If they do something that endangers a life, I might have to use a crop on them." She didn't really like that, but her mother could not take a chance on selling an Alcen that might try and kill someone with one of its horns.

"A crop?" blue eyes widened. "No using a crop on me. I'll fight back," she huffed, flopping down on the blankets that Moriko had been using as a bedroll in the hay.

She laughed, "You think they don't." She walked over and began to pet one of the Alcens, scratching its nose, and pointed out its big horns. "Those really hurt."

"Yeah, but I scratch, scream, and may bite." Cassia yawned again, snuggling down into the blanket. "Besides, I could get people to beat you up if you try," she muttered sleepily.

Moriko walked over to the yawning Cassia, leaned over, and smacked her lightly on the nose. "That wasn't very nice. You'll have people beat me up. I haven't done anything."

She flopped on to her bedroll, yawning.

The younger girl yelped in surprise, glaring at the other girl. She sighed and pulled the blanket up over her to ward off the chill. "I guess that was mean of me, huh?"

"Not mean, so much as thoughtless. Hey, don't you have your own bed with blankets in the house," Moriko grumbled as her blanket was stolen.

"Comfy," Cassia mumbled, using her arm as a pillow and closing her eyes, "'night."

"What?" the blonde grumped at the two Alcens looking over their stalls at her.


Nix frowned and stomped around the house. "She's not here again. She snuck out. I thought things were better. She was civil at dinner," she muttered to her audience of Crow, who wisely said nothing.

"Good morning." Selene came down the stairs from the second floor. "Hi, Crow, did you sleep well?" The shorter woman paused to give her wife a hug and a morning kiss before seeing what they had for breakfast.

Crow noticed Selene coming down the stairs and chose to flee. "Slept great, how about I go get some eggs?" she muttered and flew outside as fast as her aching bones would let her. She frowned thinking she had been wrong and the girl had gone off to find Sable.

Selene looked up at Nix in confusion as the older woman fled the room. "What's wrong with Crow?"

Nix returned the kiss. "The little one escaped again last night. I'm thinking I should chain her to the bed at night."

The shorter woman sighed and shook her head. "She's getting really good at that. Neither of us heard her this time." Letting go of her wife, Selene moved to the cupboards to start fixing something for breakfast.

Nix just shrugged and began poking the belly of the oven she had made three years ago, until she got a fire started. "What really gets me is that we had a nice dinner last night. She was actually sitting at the table with us."


Outside in the barn, Cassia grumbled and pulled the blanket up over her head to block out the annoying light that was threatening to make her wake up. She didn't want to wake up, she was comfortable and nice and warm.

Crow could see perfectly inside the still dark barn, and her eyes twinkled in merriment. "Now this is an interesting picture."

"Go away," Cassia mumbled, blonde hair mussed up with bits of straw sticking out of it, waving her hand in the general direction of the annoying noise.

An unintelligible sound emerged from the pile of hay, and one eye cracked open to stare blearily up at the figure in the doorway. "Crow?" she yawned. "It's too early. Can't I just go back to sleep?"

"Nope," the older woman said. "You know, it's a good thing I came out here. I don't think your mothers would like you sleeping in the barn with some girl."

"What?" Cassia sat upright when she realized where she was and why she itched in odd places. A quick check confirmed that she was indeed in the barn still. She'd never slept in the barn before. "Moriko?" she looked around for the other girl.

Moriko let out a string of nonsensical words and rolled over taking the blanket they were sharing with her.

"Wow, you really must have kept her up late, she never sleeps past breakfast," Crow said with a wiggle of her eyebrows.

Cassia blushed hard. "We didn't do anything! I don't even like her like, well, like that." She stood up hurriedly, straw sticking everywhere. "We just talked on the roof." She paused. "Are my parents up?"

"Yep, ankle biter, they are. I think the Runt is a little hurt Îcause she thinks you snuck out again. But she's hiding her hurt by being mad," Crow replied in warning so that the girl wouldn't get blindsided when she went inside.

The youngster grimaced. This was going to be horrible. "I better go inside before she gets really mad and gets Selene all upset also. If they're both angry, it's going to be impossible."

The nearest Alcen gave a bleating hoot of annoyance at not having been fed yet and stomped a foot. Moriko quickly sat up, her eyes not even open. She rubbed her sleep-crusted eyes, and half-asleep, got up and started getting the feed ready.

Crow just watched with amusement. "Look at that, boy is she housebroken." She turned her attention back to Cassia. Reaching down, she helped the girl up. "Probably a good idea·oh, and grab some eggs, I'll just tell your folks you beat me to it this morning."

"Eggs, right." Cassia couldn't help but laugh at the sleepy look on Moriko's face as she started to give the Alcen's their feed. "Morning, Moriko," she called, heading for the smaller chicken coop by the side of the barn.

"Morning," the girl responded automatically. One of the Alcens tried to shove her out of the way to get at its feed, and she lightly smacked it on the nose. With a bleat of protest, it backed off. Now a little more awake, she blinked and looked around the barn, catching Cassia coming from the back carrying eggs. "Are we in trouble?"

The girl shrugged, risking a glance at her aunt Crow to try and judge how bad it might actually be inside. "I don't know. But I'm bringing a gift," she held up the basket of eggs.

"Not if you don't hurry up. But next time you want to sneak out for a little fun, try to make it back to your own bed," Crow said opening the door.

Moriko gave a pat to the Alcens' then ran after Crow and Cassia.

"Aunt Crow," Cassia groaned, "we weren't having fun...wait, we were having fun, but not that kind of fun!"

"Uh huh," was all Crow said.

Crow stepped inside with a grin. "Hey, look who I found getting us some eggs for breakfast?"

Selene looked up from the bread she was seeing to and smiled, looking relieved as she spotted Cassia. "There you are. See, she even got us eggs this morning, Nix."

Nix was still frowning, but it looked like it wanted to turn into a smile. "Um, well, um...thanks, pumpkin." She flushed remembering how Cassia hated being called that now. "I mean, uh, thanks."

Ducking under Crow's arm, which was holding the door open, Cassia offered the basket of eggs to Nix with a smile. "Here, there were a few this morning. Moriko's going to eat breakfast with us also, right?" She let the pumpkin thing slide for now.

"Of course she can eat with us, if she wants to," Selene called from where she was building up the fire in the stove Nix had built for them years ago. She rather hoped the young woman would relax a bit and not be as painfully shy as she had been the last time she'd seen her.

Nix blinked, somewhat shocked at the lack of outburst and the lack of mentioning anything about Sable. "Sit, Moriko, we don't bite."

The young woman fidgeted then carefully sat down at the table. It was odd being in this house, there was some tension, but nothing like at her house, and it was warm and inviting. "Th-thank you·"

Crow laughed·a loud sound that startled nearly everything. "She's not so shy once she gets used to you. Then you can't get her to be quiet."

Moriko flushed, "Crow, that's not true."

"Aunt Crow, you're being mean," Cassia frowned at the older woman, then, to Selene's surprise, started to set the table without having been asked to do it. She exchanged a surprised look with Nix then set about making an omelet with the eggs that Cassia had brought in.

"I'm not being mean, ankle biter. I'm just tweaking her a bit, kind of like I do with you." The large woman sat down gently next to the blushing blonde.

"You can't talk more than Cassia does when she gets excited over something." Selene decided that some gentle teasing was in order. "Like that time she managed to make her first piece in the forge. I think she talked about it for two weeks straight.

"Really..?" Moriko asked. "I didn't know you worked metal like your mother. What did you make?"

The young woman could feel herself flushing as she realized that everyone in the room was watching her closely for her response. Risking a glance up at her mother, she dared meet Nix's eyes only for a moment. "Mother helped, I mean, she made most of it herself. I wasn't old enough to do it myself, but I helped make the door knocker outside to replace the old wooden one we had."

"She's being modest. She told me what she wanted to do and I just helped her lift the hammer and such," Nix broke in, her face beaming with pride.

"Really, you made the knocker on the door? It looks nice. You're lucky to have an important skill like that," Moriko said shyly.

"Mother..." Cassia sighed, in the way that only teenagers could mix a warning and disparaging comment in one, then turned and smiled widely at Moriko. "Thanks." Seeing that Selene was almost done with the eggs, she shot up off her seat to go grab the clay dishes. In record time the breakfast had been split up evenly and placed at each of the settings on the table.

Smiling with amusement at the human tornado, Selene paused to press a kiss to Nix's temple then took a seat next to her at the table.

"Th-thanks for breakfast, um..." Moriko hesitated, not certain how to address the Queen.

"My name is Selene, dear." The other woman picked up her wooden utensils and started to eat. "Would you like some tea?"

"I'll get it!" Cassia stood up, nearly knocking over her chair to grab the tea pot and pour some for Moriko before she could even answer. "Did you know Moriko has a falcon that follows her around?"

Nix met Selene's eyes and gave a little grin, which she quickly hid, "Really, a falcon?"

Their daughter nodded, quickly finishing a mouthful of omelet so she could talk. "I've never seen a falcon come to someone like that. She has this leather thing on her arm that he lands on, and he comes to her whenever she calls him."

Selene ate at a more leisurely pace, using the act of eating to hide the grin that she was having more trouble hiding than Nix.

Moriko's cheeks were quickly dusted with a faint blush. "Um, yes, he's a black-tailed hawk. I've had him since he was a baby. He fell out of his nest, and the mother wouldn't take him back, so I raised him." She tried to think of something to deflect the conversation from herself.

"I think it's still amazing that you made the door knocker, to have a skill like that to make things. It's just..." As her mother pointed out on several occasions, it was best if she stood away from fire. She didn't have any skill, be it with metal or making food, her and fire didn't get along.

"It's just neat," she finished quietly, embarrassed she was gushing and everybody at the table seemed to be looking at her funny.

The young girl lowered her eyes to study the tabletop in front of her. "I like working in the forge, but it's not what I want to do for the rest of my life," she whispered, not daring to look up and see Nix's face. To see the disappointment she was sure was going to be clear in her mother's expression.

This was the first time she'd said such a thing clearly, instead of during the heat of an argument.

Very carefully, Selene avoided making any sort of sound or letting any expression cross her face as she reached over to take Nix's hand. This was the closest to an actual conversation that the family had had in what felt like forever. She just hoped that her lover would answer calmly and not act hastily.

Nix's eyes left Moriko's form and switched to Cassia, hurt by the statement. Deep inside she knew Cassia wouldn't follow in her footsteps, but still, to have it out in the open, it did hurt her. She felt Selene take her hand and felt somewhat lighter. "I know," she said it quietly, almost as if she forced it out. "It's okay." It wasn't, but it would be someday.

The big woman suddenly didn't have much of an appetite. "Gina's youngest will be up within the week to start her apprenticeship with me." Her watery blue eyes were fixed firmly on her plate. To have said it out loud made it so real.

"I'm sorry!" Cassia did look up at that, tears forming in her eyes at the calm words from her mother. Somehow they were worse than anything Nix could have shouted. "I tried." Tears gathered and two course down over her cheeks.

Moriko felt like she was intruding and seriously wanted to be any place other than here at the moment. Her own eyes were fascinated by the patterns she was making with her eggs. Crow poked her hard and she looked up and the older woman gestured for them to go outside. Quietly as they could, they left the table.

Next to Nix, Selene watched them go with a feeling of relief. She couldn't have asked them to leave, not politely anyway, but this was a conversation to be had with family members only.

Nix finally looked up. "Cassia, you have nothing to be sorry for. I guess I'm sorry if I made you feel like I had all these expectations to follow after me. I just, I just thought you liked spending time in the forge with me. Then one day you just stopped speaking to me and doing your chores..." She blew out a breath, probably a good thing, Îcause she wanted to end with, 'and you started acting like a spoiled brat'. That would just send them backwards.

Her daughter leapt from her chair, moving to take the chair that Crow had sat in next to where Nix sat, tears freely flowing down her cheeks. "I like being with you. I loved spending time in the forge. I thought I wanted to be a smith." She had dreamed of taking over the forge when she was young.

"But then I couldn't...there was so much more I wanted to do." She knew she was explaining it badly, but it was so hard. She felt like her heart was breaking it was so full with sadness at the expression on her mother's face. "Do you hate me?" she cried, fearing the answer.

Nix laughed, a few tears streaking down her face. "No, pumpkin, I don't hate you. You're our daughter, your Muanya and I love you very much. I will admit I haven't been very happy with you skipping out on your chores and running around like some moonstruck calf. The sneaking out has given us more gray hair, I think, but I don't think I've behaved much better on occasion." It was hard to admit, but blowing her stack at Cassia had probably made it worse.

The tears calmed to a few sniffles, and a bashful look came over the young girl at the mention of her chores and running around. "Both of you don't like Sable much, do you?"

Nix went quiet. After a moment, she managed to say something. "Um...well...I like her fine."

Her wife laughed a little at her answer, grinning fondly at their daughter and her wife. "No, I don't think we can say that we are very happy with the thought of you marrying Sable."

"Actually, I don't think we like the idea of you marrying at all yet, you seem so young, pumpkin. There's so much to learn and experience. It's a huge new world, and we don't even know the half of what is out there." Nix looked at her daughter carefully, to see if they were on the verge of a blow up.

Cassia drew in a breath to immediately start arguing then forced herself to let it go. She couldn't just keep on yelling at her parents every time they said something she didn't like. "I still like Sable." She folded her hands over her chest, daring them to argue about that.

Nix blew out a breath. "Why don't we stop while we are all ahead? I feel a lot better and closer to my most favorite women than I have in a while, and perhaps we should take some time and think about all this."

"Truce..?" Cassia smiled.

Nix grinned and looked at her partner before back at the young woman in front of her, "Truce."

"Good. Now that you two have settled that, you can both do the dishes." Selene kissed Nix's cheek then Cassia's.

Nix rolled her eyes and got up from the table. "I'll do the dishes. Go have fun for today, but tomorrow, no more slacking on your chores. It was nice of Moriko to pitch in, but it's not her job."

Cassia rolled her eyes in an exact imitation of her mother. "I can dry then I'll go have fun."

Nix didn't argue, "Fair enough."


Moriko was brushing down Ruger, the huge male Alcen she had raised from a fawn. He stomped his feet and tried to act annoyed, but she knew he was loving it.

"Excuse me!"

Moriko knew she wasn't going to like whoever was attached to that voice.

She turned her head away from her task, "Um, y-y-yes."

The young girl snorted in annoyance. "Who are you? And what are you doing in the royal stable? And you should address me as Lady Sable, and put a bow in it if you're capable."

Moriko bit her lip to refrain from saying anything too nasty, and turned back to her chores. So that was Sable. She was a twit. "Cassia is in the house."

"Cassia is in the house...Lady Sable," Sable tried to correct. After a moment of silence being her only response, she stomped her foot and left for the house.

In a huff she marched up to the house. That girl was just so...rude, yes rude. Why was she here? Had the royal family finally hired a servant? She reached the house and knocked politely at the door, plastering a smile on her face. Her mothers had reamed her out good for her little stunt yesterday. They had told her to make up and agree to the stupid tasks and they would make sure she passed at any cost.


It had been a nice morning, although Cassia didn't like crying in front of her parents. She'd enjoyed feeling close to her mothers again though. They'd cleaned up after breakfast, teasing one another and laughing like old times. No mention was made of the smithy or any potentially explosive topic. Soon afterwards, Nix had gone out to the smithy and Selene had to go to meet with some of the women who had come in from over the southern pass.

Humming to herself, Cassia hurried downstairs from her room where she'd been sketching some new ideas and opened the door. "You don't have to knock..." she trailed off, having expect it to be Moriko at the door. Instead, it was Sable. "Hi," she said awkwardly.

Sable pouted. "You're still mad at me, aren't you?" She even worked up a few tears in her eyes.

"I'm sorry about how I acted yesterday. But you can't blame me, it did come out of nowhere, and why should we have to prove our love to your parents," she continued barely taking a breath.

The taller girl couldn't stay angry at Sable when she produced a few tears and looked up at her like that. "I know it was sudden, I'm sorry. But even Willow is saying that you would have to go through the trials."

Sable sighed. "Okay." She paused to think of the words her mothers had told her to say. "If that's what it will take to get your mothers to like me, I'll do them."

There was a hint of doubt in Cassia's mind. Sable had seemed so very vocal yesterday about never doing any sort of trial. "Are you sure?" she frowned a little.

"Of course, I want to be Queen to your Queen. I just needed some time to think." She leaned in and kissed Cassia's lips, a little concerned at the lukewarm response.

The kiss was as nice as it had always been, and Cassia relaxed into it. "Will I see you tonight?"

Sable grinned, that was more like it. "Of course·the usual spot?"

The other girl nodded, smiling. "See you then."

Oh, did you're family finally get a servant? Sable asked.

"What?" Cassia leaned out the door to see who she was talking about, frowning again. "No, that's Moriko."

Moriko was heading up towards the well when she spied the young couple in the doorway to the house, a frowned spread out over her face. She pointedly ignored them and walked past to the well to draw water for the Alcens. She was beginning to like Cassia, but she wasn't sure she could stand her being with that twit.

Sable blinked. "Oh, well, she's very rude. I'll see you later." She gave Cassia another kiss, this one a little more intense to make sure the girl was focused on her. She didn't like the way she was familiar with this Moriko.

She left Cassia to stand in the doorway, frowning as she watched her girlfriend leave. Why did it bother her that Sable thought Moriko was rude and had insinuated she was a servant? Cassia herself had done almost the same not too long ago.

Moriko walked past and stopped suddenly as Sable nearly ran into her. Water slopped over the sides of the rough wooden bucket and on to her pants and boots.

"Hey, watch where you're going!" Sable yelled.

Moriko simply gritted her teeth and said nothing, just turned and went back to the well for water.

"Sorry about that," a quiet voice said from not far away, as Cassia walked towards the well. "She's just..." Cassia paused, not sure what words to use to describe Sable.

Moriko stayed silent, and drew up another bucket of water. Turning, she looked at Cassia for a second. "Last night you asked me if this Sable loved you. I told you I didn't know. Now, I'm only going to tell you what I think once, and then unless you truly want my honest opinion, we won't speak of it again. She loves only the idea of you." She walked past the princess back to the barn.

Her short conversation with Sable let her know that the twit loved only the idea of being Lady Sable.

The other teen trailed along behind her into the barn, the frown deepening. "But that means that she kind of loves me, doesn't it?"

Moriko shrugged, "I guess." She poured the water into the trough and rubbed Ruger's nose before letting him drink.

Cassia jumped up onto one of the piles of hay to watch the other teen rub the nose of the Alcen. "My mothers like you." She decided to change the topic. "Nix said it was nice for you to pitch in, but it's not your job. You don't have to do chores. I do."

Moriko smiled. "Well, seeing as the Alcens are mine, I think I'm doing my chores." She set the bucket down and went into the empty stall she was using and looked for her pack. Wet boots and trousers spun with Alcen hair were really uncomfortable.

With a huff, Cassia flopped backwards onto the pile of hay to stare up at the roof above her to give the other girl some privacy. "Well, I guess that's all the chores you need to do."

She started to take off her boots, hopping around a bit and almost falling over, but finally got them off. The trousers were a bit easier. With a sigh of relief, she hung the wet pants over the stall door and pulled out a clean pair and put them on. "Yeah, at least your chores don't include taking care of something that poops." Rose, the smaller female Alcen, looked up at her mistress and gave a hoot of displeasure. "Well, you do," she muttered at the beast.

The other teen laughed at the interaction between the handler and her animal. With a mischievous smile, she got up onto her knees and crept up to the stall. Peering between the wooden boards, she picked up a pile of the hay she'd been laying on and tossed it over the top of the stall.

"Hey!" Moriko squawked indigently, her hands holding up her trousers while she tried to tie the simple braided belt. Taking a breath she blew straw out of her face.

Laughter came from the other stall, swiftly followed by another shower of straw that rained down from above. "You having problems over there?"

In a second, she finished tying her belt, and with quick steps, she was out the stall door and running into the other empty stall. "That wasn't very nice." She scooped up some clean hay and tossed it at the girl.

The laughter turned into a shriek as Moriko moved faster than Cassia had expected and she got straw flung at her. "No fair!" She tried to back up, but the stall was only so big. In desperation, she started to fling hay back at the other girl, and suddenly, the air was filled with flying straw.

Moriko laughed and tackled Cassia into the hay. "Let this be a lesson not to start things you can't finish." She had four sisters, so she doubted there was a move or dirty trick she hadn't encountered. "Let's see if you're ticklish." Her hands started on Cassia's sides, looking for a ticklish spot.


Nix came out of her shop after hearing what sounded like Cassia shouting. Crow waved her off from where she'd been enjoying the sunshine in the courtyard.

"They're just playing," Crow nodded. "Moriko wouldn't hurt a fly." She smiled, "Hear that? That's Moriko's laugh. I haven't heard that in a while. So just go back to work and let the girls have their fun."

Nix sighed, but went back inside.


The shrieks turned louder and shriller, "N-no!" Cassia laughed, struggling to get away from the probing fingers. "I give up! I give up!" she struggled to yell between bouts of laughter, squirming in the pile of hay.

Moriko laughed and stopped only when Cassia threatened to pee on her. She flopped down into the hay. "For a Princess, you're pretty strong."

That earned the other girl a punch to the arm from the still laughing Cassia, her face red from the tickling. "And you aren't very nice," she retorted jokingly.

The blonde rolled her eyes, "I haven't dunked you in the trough, so I'm being very nice."

"You wouldn't dare!" It was the wrong thing to say, and Cassia knew it the second the words left her mouth. Eyes wide, she sprung to her feet, frantically backing away from the other girl. "You wouldn't dunk me in the water, right?"

Moriko made no move to get up. "Not right now. This is my only other pair of trousers, I'm not getting them wet, Îcause Alcen wool is horribly scratchy when wet. And I'm not walking around naked. I think your moms would not like me very much if I did that."

She sighed happily, and couldn't remember the last time she'd laughed like that.

Not quite trusting that the other girl wasn't going to make a move, Cassia stayed where she was, standing at the edge of the stall door. "That's the only other pair of trousers you have?" She frowned. "We should go shopping." Her comment brought a glint of excitement to her eyes. "We could go find you at least another pair of trousers that's not made from Alcen hair."

Moriko frowned and picked at some straw on her chest. "I can't afford to go shopping." She didn't have any money, and nothing, really, to barter with.

Cassia moved closer, holding out her hand. "Come on, it will be fun. I have some money that we can use. My mothers give me an allowance; well, they did when I was doing my chores."

The other girl looked unsure. "I don't know. You don't need to spend your money on me."

"I don't need to, but I want to. Please?" Cassia tried out her best smile, the one she used whenever she was trying to get something out of either Nix or Selene.


There was another mischievous glint in Cassia's eyes. Grabbing the other girl's hand, she pulled her up and towards the door to the barn. "I know just the places to go try on some pairs."


Keshet stifled a sigh as her advisor droned on and on about the northern royal family. She was prudent enough not to ask how the woman knew all the dirty laundry going on in a fledging city miles from them, or why it mattered so much. In all honesty, she wasn't that brave a woman. Her partner had been the brave one, the warrior; she was merely an ex-pleasure slave who fell in love with the woman who would found the southern territories. Of course, the Followers of Armando would have a snit about that, they considered themselves the southern territories, and her territories the midlands, but it was her land now, and she would call it what Morgan had.

Her advisor, a gift from the Goddess of Shadows, was a scary woman. Not that the woman had ever done anything, it was just a feeling that she got. And Keshet was a woman who listened to her gut feelings. The advisor wore all black. Even her face was covered in black cloth, leaving only twin black pools that were her eyes, visible.

It was times like this that Keshet hated her partner for dying and leaving her this awful chore of running a kingdom; balancing loyalties between various gods and three petulant children. Actually, the eldest seemed like she had outgrown that phase and the twins. The twins, on the other hand, had their moments where she thought she might actually let them live to see twenty.

A creaking of leather behind her let her know it was Eira, a tall, whip-thin woman with the same unnerving black eyes as her advisor, and a hungry look that constantly sat upon her features. A look that was not helped by the severe bun she pulled her light brown hair into. Eira was a gift from the Temple of Shadows, a bodyguard for her and the children. One that Keshet didn't really want, but politically had to take - with a smile.

Utterly bored, her gaze strolled around the throne room, the comforting presence of her Guard Captain, Penka, and her hound Rage stood by the doorway shadowed by the newest chosen of Vladlin's Temple, Valdis, and her hound Wraith. Penka was imposing in her dark armor, almost frightful, but to the Queen, Penka was a soothing presence in the throne room. Valdis was average height, with white blonde hair and piercing blue eyes that seemed to miss nothing, and the new tattoos on her hands showed up easily on her pale skin. On top of each hand was a black paw print, showing her as a chosen of Vladlin, God of War and chaos.

Keshet's wandering mind snapped back to her advisor's words. What was that? Selene's child is looking to get married?

The advisor nodded. But her parents have created some boundaries for marriage that is causing some conflict in the royal family.

And I'm caring about this private matter, why?

The advisor fought to roll her eyes. Well, you do have three available daughters. Who knows, if perhaps you took a visit up north to visit our cousins, maybe the Royal daughter would prefer one of your daughters instead? It would be a good political move.

Keshet frowned. Brody is happily courting some girl from the plains, and I have no intention of getting in the middle of that. As for the twins, they're only sixteen, and aren't even capable of taking care of themselves, let alone to get married.

Under her black face cloth, the advisor gritted her teeth. The poison was supposed to have killed this stubborn bitch, not Morgan. Morgan had been easy to manipulate until she married Keshet. So her plan in the winter had been to poison Keshet with a poison that reproduced the effects of wet lung rot. But stupid Morgan had to eat the food off of Keshet's plate.

Well, their daughter Cassia is only sixteen.

Keshet shuddered, I feel for them.

Yes, I'm sure you do. Anyway, I think it would be prudent if maybe you and your daughters went up there as a sign of good will. Introduce the twins to their royal cousin, so to speak. If there's a spark between one of them, so much the better, it would strengthen our ties to the north. Plus·it would give Brody a chance to cut her teeth on the throne, so to speak, without having you to fall back on.

Keshet mulled it over. The only good point to come out of all that crap, she thought, was in letting Brody have the reins, so to speak. I will think on it, she replied dryly

For a moment the advisor looked like she would say more, but then merely bowed and left.

Keshet sat for a while in thought, life in the throne room moving around her. After a while she turned, looking at Eira. Eira, I'll be fine for a moment. Why don't you go check on the twins, I'm still not real fond of their new guards.


For a moment she thought the tall bodyguard would argue, the woman looked a little offended, but thankfully in the end, bowed and strode off.

A happy sigh bubbled over her lips as the woman left, and slowly rose from the simple wooden throne Morgan had carved for her years ago. Penka, Valdis, she commanded, attend me, please.

In a second, the two warriors were at her side. My Queen? Penka asked with a slight bow.

I am going for a walk in the garden, and you two shall be my temporary bodyguards.


The women nodded and followed their Queen.

Keshet loved the gardens. Morgan had wooed her here, and it still held happy memories. And this was where she felt the closest to her dead lover.

The two guards waited, knowing that when the Queen was ready, she would speak her mind.

After a minute, the Queen sat on a simple wooden bench, and the two guardswomen came to rest on either side of her. I'm not sure why the advisor is pushing for a match between our two lands. The twins hardly seem the type to marry at this point. Her idea has some merit, just not the part on marriage· Keshet trailed off, thinking.

Valdis felt awkward. She was new to this post, and unlike her mother, was not used to having the Queen ask things of her. She darted a look at her mother, who just stood stoically, not surprised at all.

Her mother's sweet quiet voice asked, Something about this bothers you. Once you figure that out, you'll know what to do.

Keshet smiled. I know what troubles me. It's what always troubles me·the advisor. I know she's up to something. She bares a great hatred of the northern territories, and this stinks of some plot. I refuse to be her pawn to continue her own private feud with the north. We have enough problems here with petty Lady's setting up little fiefdoms, ruling them no better than the lords who ruled them.

Penka merely grunted, knowing well her Queen's personal dislike of her subjects who set up brutal households. The Queen made it no secret that she had been a pleasure slave in a violent household before the exodus. As a soldier for the Royal family, she had been sent out to fight many a petty despot trying to take advantage in this new world they were creating. Morgan had won Queenship through violence and blood, as well as promises to the gods. Keshet was left to fulfill this burden.

The Queen stretched then stood, looking from one soldier to the other, their sleek fearsome frames panting at their feet. One older, with gray peppering her hair, and scars of battle worn proudly; the other young and unmarked, a sign of change coming; they would grow old and die, but they would continue. She turned away. A vacation would be nice, and I have yet to make a trip to the north. Before I was pregnant, and Morgan went alone. Perhaps those wild barbarians will wear out the twins?

Penka snorted. That would be a miracle, my Queen, not a vacation.

Too right, Captain, too right. She grinned for a moment before becoming all business. Start planning, we must be prepared, my loyal advisor has a trick up her sleeve. One that I think I will find no enjoyment in. You and Valdis will, of course, be joining us. Plan the rest accordingly. Don't forget Brody will need some muscle here as well.

Penka bowed, It will be done. Valdis, attend the Queen.

Valdis nodded and followed the Queen.


Keshet watched the twins squirm around in their saddles. Despite the early hour, they were alert and ready to go. She loved them dearly, although they tried her patience on a daily basis. They were both long and lean, their frames just starting to fill out, and both had Morgan's gray eyes. While Brody had her dark skin, the twins had dusky tan color to theirs, a combination of both parents.

Annoyed, she watched the other members of their traveling party fall into line. It was not the small little group she had originally planned on. Her advisor had insisted that Eira join them. Then the High priestesses from each temple had insisted that she take a representative from each one. Politically, she couldn't say no.

With a sigh, she looked over at Penka. Can we go now?

The Captain of the Guard hid a smile. If you are ready, then we shall go.

The Queen nodded.

With a piercing whistle that got everyone's attention, they finally moved out.


Vertag stretched her back, wincing at the soreness that pulled her muscles. With the end of summer in sight, all of the people of Abnoa were busy trying to pull in enough crops to endure the winter months ahead. Not for the first time, the gray-haired woman wished that they had something better to endure the harsh conditions that prevailed during the deep winter months, instead of the simple wooden houses they made do with now.

Waving to a party of women who were returning from hunting in the forest, she moved towards the communal kitchen hut. "Vertag!" a young voice called out, and she had to brace herself to catch the small form that flung itself at her.

Laughing, the older woman picked up the youngster and spun her around in the air as she had since she'd been born. "Hello, Melissa! What has you so excited today?" The youngster laughed happily at being twirled then tried to pretend to be all serious. "Mother sent me to tell you she saw horses coming towards us. Visitors!" the child was nearly vibrating with excitement.

"Visitors..?" Vertag ruffled the youngster's hair, her sister's child and dear to her heart. Shaking out dark brown hair that was almost always in a long ponytail, now streaked with gray, she changed course and headed towards the edge of the camp. "Go get some food, Melissa. I'll go find these visitors of yours."


A messenger, fleet of foot, ran up the mountainous path. Abnoa pass was the gateway to the north, a territory that was somewhat of a mystery to those in the south. Her dark skin was flushed, her black, curly hair was plastered to her head, and her breath was labored, not used to the altitude. However, she kept going, her stride never slowing. She had a royal message, and she was proud to do her job.

The air was colder than she was used to, and she wished she had brought and over-tunic, but there was no use in wishing for things she didn't have. It was starting to grow dark, and she hoped she reached the settlement soon, unsure how she would find her way once it became full dark.

The trees were tall, and most of the landscape was unfamiliar. She was used to rich farmland and rain.

She heard a noise and gripped the leather hide scroll tighter, and fear made her legs run faster.

"Ho! Traveler!" the voice came from the source of that noise as someone tried to keep up with the sprinting woman through the dark trees.

The woman skidded to a halt, her chest heaved. "Who-who is there?" she gasped out.

It took Vertag a few seconds to catch up with her, and the older woman was breathing hard as she did. By the Goddess, whoever this was she moved fast! "My name is Vertag." She took several deep breaths, trying to calm her racing heart. Night would be on them soon, it was a miracle she'd seen the other woman at all through the trees.

The messenger blinked at the woman who just appeared out of the trees. "Are you with the settlement of Abnoa?"

Vertag grinned, moving closer so she could see the other woman clearly in the gathering twilight. "Yes I am." She studied the obviously younger woman.

The messenger sighed in relief. "I have been given the task of running a message ahead to the settlement of Abnoa."

She looked around, but saw no sign of a village or town, "Is it close? It is important I deliver it to the town's leader."

"You must be the mysterious visitors that I heard about." She gave a wry smile at that and motioned in the direction of the camp. "You can give me your message at camp if you want. The nights are getting cooler, and we have fire and food. You are welcome to share."

"Thank you, Vertag. It would be very nice to be warm. I did not think it would be this cold." She gave a small bow and followed the older woman.

Vertag laughed. "This isn't cold yet." She glanced over her shoulder as she led the way back towards the camp. "Do messengers have names?"

"Only when we are not Royal messengers· I am on duty, so my name doesn't matter, just my duty." It was true; names gave away too much, when the privacy of message might be at stake. It was easier to find a messenger if a name was leaked.

"A mystery woman·" Vertag gave that chuckle again as she started to walk again. "Welcome to Abnoa then, whatever your name is." Ahead of them, she could just make out the flickering light of the campfires between the tree trunks.

The older woman wondered what this messenger was as they emerged onto the edge of the camp. It had been built at the foot of the mountain pass, not far from a good source of water. But it was undeniably a bare place, with simple wooden cabins set around the perimeter, and a large dining hall that was used as a communal gathering place, in the center. Fires burned in a ring around the settlement to guide the hunters home, and keep the wild animals at bay.

Silently, the messenger sighed in pleasure as she sat on the ground next to the fire, once again she was warm. She knew she should stretch or her muscles would hurt, but she couldn't manage it at the moment. She looked up at the woman who had guided her. "So, who is your leader?" Once she was relieved of her burden, she could eat and drink.

Vertag grinned, crouching down next to the fire so that her features were in the light. "That would be me, I guess." Spotting movement, she called out. "Melissa, you better go tell your mother that I found our visitors. Get somebody to bring something warm from the kitchen for her as well." The youngster bobbed her head and scampered off into the darkness.

She broke the scroll with a happy grin and unrolled it. "From the southern Queen Keshet, Greetings to my northern sisters. I have sent this Royal Messenger ahead to give advanced warning. I'm bringing my twins, so you'll need it..." The messenger flushed at the informal language and faltered for a second before picking back up.

"I and a small party will be visiting the Northern territories, with my family and a few others I couldn't ditch due to politics. I look forward to finally visiting the north, and learning of my sisters, many of whom I have not seen since the Exodus. Please send notice on to your Queen Selene. I don't expect special treatment, but it would be nice to have a warm place to sleep. Sincerely, Queen Keshet·"

Vertag was chuckling before the messenger had even finished reading the scroll. "Ah! A woman I think I can get along with. I like the sound of this Queen Keshet." The northerner stretched her hands out to the fire as a different youngster shyly offered the messenger a bowl of hot venison stew.

"I'll send word through the pass to Selene. I'm sure she'll be happy to meet Keshet, and will find someplace warm for her to stay." Vertag wasn't one to mince words or try for flowery dispositions.

"Thank you. My name is Fleet. I chose my name because I was always a fast runner. I was but a small child during the Exodus, but thanks to kind women like you, I survived." She took the food and tasted it carefully. "This is nice·different, but not bad."

The older woman's smile widened at that and held out her hand. "Well met, Fleet. Does this mean you aren't on official duty anymore?"

"I have done my duty, and now I am done. At least until the Royal family arrives." She shrugged then she didn't know.

Vertag clasped the other woman's hand in welcome then released it. "That means you can enjoy some drinks with us tonight, then?"

Fleet, grinned. "That would be nice." Actually, she was happy just to be warm by the fire.


Fleet watched the women as they sang and danced around the fire, and sipped the warm red wine. It was different. She was used to the wheat-tasting beer they brewed on the farms near the Royal homestead. She pulled on Vertag's sleeve to get the older woman's attention. "What are you all celebrating?"

Vertag swayed a little as she finished another mug of red wine, waving to her sister and her wife, who were calling it a night. "What?" The older woman smiled. "Oh, well, a visitor is as good an excuse as any. We've worked hard all summer, and it's nice to relax."

"Oh." Fleet gave a little grin. "It's good to relax." She was amazed at how few of them were up here, at the settlement. In the south, the settlements were packed with women vying for power and land.

A little unsteadily, the older woman took a seat on one of the logs that had been dragged over for people to sit on. "Are things so different here than where you came from?"

"Sometimes the farmers and other laborers have festival nights like this, normally to be thankful for a good harvest. But, well, the settlements are packed with people and temples. You have no temple here, but I admit I would not know what a temple to the Moon Goddess would look like. No one worships her in the south." She stared at the red, swirling contents of her cup. "But there are so few of you here. I could wander for days in the trees and not see another person, I bet." She said the last part with a bit of wonder in her voice, trying to even imagine it was hard.

Vertag made a choking sound. "No one worships the Goddess of the Moon?" She looked horrified by the very thought. "Well, there's a temple to her up in the mountain pass. The priestesses tend it, and those who wish to have babies make the trek up to them."

"Oh, we have the Goddess of Love, people travel to her temple to be blessed with young ones. I, myself, haven't been inside." She blushed at some of the things she had heard about the temple.

The northerner shook her head in wonder. How had things gotten so different between the two lands within only a few decades? Were there so many more people in the south than there were in the north? "My sisters and I left the city that most of the others lived in to move here. We found there were too many people for our liking. We have our space here; the forest gives us all we need to live."

Fleet wasn't sure she could be self-sufficient enough to survive in the forest.

There was a commotion near the edge of the settlement, sounds of raised voices, horses, and dogs. Fleet hid her face in her hands. "I think the royal family is here."

The music ended abruptly and the dancing swirled to a stop as everyone stopped what they were doing to turn towards the sound of the chaos at the far edge of the camp. With a sigh, Vertag levered herself upright. She had just been starting to enjoy her ale and the company of a beautiful younger, not to mention, exotic woman. Sigh, the fates were cruel sometimes. "I think you better come introduce us before someone gets too edgy."

"You can't just ride your horses in here... Idiot do you know who you are talking too.... It's cold, this sucks... I want to go home... My Queen, you just can't..." Everything was acoustical chaos. Finally, a voice rose above everybody else's, "Would you all shut up?!"

Fleet's eyebrows rose. "Um, that last voice would be the Queen."

Keshet stared around at her travel party. "All of you get off your horses and thank the nice people for staying up this late to greet you."

Penka and Valdis got concerned looks on their faces. "Your Highness, we haven't had a chance to scout the area..." they both said at the same time, only to get cut off with a look.

Vertag chuckled and headed towards the sound of that voice, waving the other women back to their dancing by the fire. This was going to be interesting. "You must be Queen Keshet!" she called out in what she hoped was a loud and friendly enough voice "And the rest of your royal party, of course. Your messenger warned us you would be coming."

She paused on the way to glare at two women who had quietly taken up their bows, nervously watching the sudden influx of strangers. "Gala, Era, go get some more stew ready for our guests." When the two hesitated, she took a step towards them, "Now!" They fled·bows in hand.

"Before everyone started thinking with their asses, there was nice music playing, and people looked happy. Do these people look happy? No, they don't. So everybody get off their damn horses!" Happily, the Queen was the first one to dismount. Her own ass was much happier not to be in the saddle. She turned to the woman addressing her. "That would be me. And whom do I have the honor to address."

Penka and Valdis quickly dismounted and rushed to their Queen's side. Their sworn duty was to protect her.

Keshet rolled her eyes. "They're harmless, just loyal, and they worry a lot."

"Not sure about that honor part, but my name is Vertag. Welcome to our humble village. You and your company are welcome to join in the celebration. We've hot stew, wine, and dancing." The northerner shrugged, as if to say what can you do. "Don't mind my lot either, they just haven't seen this many outsiders in a long time." Ever, actually, but she didn't say that out loud.

Fitfully at first, but then with growing certainty, the music resumed and a few of the more outgoing women, or those who had drank more than the others, started to dance by the fire again.

The Queen followed Vertag. "It's nice to meet you, and all of that sounds wonderful." She pulled the twins by their ears to her side before they could run off. "These two are Cailin and Caron. Believe nothing they tell you."

"Mom·" both young girls said at the same time, looking annoyed.

"I can tell they'll have a lot of fun with our own youngsters." Youngsters who were doing their level best to appear disinterested in the new arrivals, but all just happened to be lingering close by in a small group.

The two women that Vertag had sent earlier returned with large bowls of stew that they began offering to the travelers who had recently arrived. "Can I offer you some wine? I don't think Fleet liked it too much, but hopefully it will warm you up some, at least." Vertag moved towards the large pot of mulled wine warming near the fire.

"My loyal guards are Penka and Valdis. As for the rest, they are a political hardship I must endure, and I apologize now for anything they say and do. They are representatives from the different temples." She ruffled the twins' hair before releasing them to run wild. "Don't break anything or anyone," she shouted after them.

She smiled at the offer, "Sounds wonderful. Morgan told me it was colder up here, but I never realized how far up we had to travel. I can't wait to see it in the daylight."

The northerner watched with an amused smile as the twins disappeared into the waiting group of youngsters, who moved as an excited pack towards the far side of the campground, away from the adults. "If you think this is high, then you are in for a surprise when you climb the pass. You can see the entire valley laid out before you from the top." She gestured towards one of the log chairs, "Please take a seat. The road must have been a long one." She eyed the horses for a second, "They're larger than the fire warriors' Alcens."

"Alcen..?" Keshet questioned. "Is that the deer thingy you folks use?" Morgan had told her about them.

Vertag grinned, white teeth flashing in the firelight as she wondered what the fire warriors would think about their Alcens' being called deer thingies. "That's them. We don't use them·they're more common north of here." She accepted a mug of red wine from a passing girl and took a deep drink. Wiping her mouth, she eyed the other woman speculatively, "Not that we aren't happy to have visitors, but may I ask why you're going to visit Selene?"

Keshet looked around to make sure her bodyguard Eira wasn't in hearing distance. She did not trust that woman at all. With a frown, she realized she had no idea where the woman was. She motioned for Penka, and the woman was at her side in a second. "Find Eira and see what she's up too." Penka bowed once and made a gesture for her hound, Rage, to stay and guard the Queen then the next moment she was gone.

The northerner watched the exchange with interest, sipping her wine thoughtfully as the guard took off. "She might have snuck off with some of the others to smoke some Karro weed," Vertag mentioned, motioning towards some of the women who were off in the shadows of the trees.

She turned her attention back to Vertag. "One of my advisors said this would be a good time to visit. That the young Princess was thinking of marriage. I was huge and fat, pregnant with those twins, when Morgan visited, so I missed out. My eldest, needs to learn to rule without actually having the stress of being in charge, so I thought why not."

She bit her lip and debated a second. Finally, she made a decision. "However, I doubt the sincerity of some that travel with me. I hope to root it out before something happens. I think there is something foul underlying my advisor's motives. She has a hatred of the north she thinks she hides from me, but I see it quite clearly."

The other woman pursed her lips, frowning slightly at the thought that someone would hate the north so much in the south. "I hope you find the source of your troubles during your voyage, though I warn you that a trip through the mountain pass is no place to doubt the loyalty of those you travel with. It is not an easy trip, and as soon as the winter snows start, it will be impassable."

Keshet nodded, "Good to know. Means someone used to live here and is familiar with your lands." Valdis tapped her shoulder, drawing attention to a grimacing Penka, being followed by the gloomy Eira. With a sigh, Keshet's face closed off. "Some of that wine would be lovely right now."


Cassia groaned as she realized exactly how late it was, or early, depending how you wanted to look at it. What had started out as a quick trip to visit Sable·had turned into something decidedly more. Hiding a yawn, she leaned against the side of the barn, resting for a moment as she wearily considered the climb up the tree to her bedroom window. Sable had wanted her to stay, but Cassia didn't want to deal with the inevitable arguments if she didn't come home before morning.

A black-tailed hawk landed lightly on a tree and observed the young woman. Being ignored, he gave a small cry that was easily swallowed by the muted early morning hour.

Cassia nearly peed herself in surprise as she whirled around, her heart in her throat. She shook her head when she spotted the dark form in the tree. There was just enough light that the world was shades of gray. "Sh...you're going to wake up everyone if you do that any louder."

He puffed up and shook his feathers; one fell and swayed gently back and forth until it hit the ground. He stared at her as if he were sizing her up.

"What?" she demanded, feeling ridiculous for feeling ashamed of herself because of the look a bird was giving her. Pushing off from the barn, she bent over to pick up the feather.

Ruger and Rose shook their great frames and hooted softly, wanting to be fed. Moriko cracked an eye at the noise then shut it, mumbling that it was too early.

Talon squawked and took off from the branch and flew into the barn.

"Shhhh..." Cassia quietly moved into the barn, rubbing each of the beasts on the nose and carefully moving feed into the front of the stalls for them. "How about we let Moriko sleep in today?" she whispered.

"Why are we letting me do that?" Moriko asked sleepily, her eyes still not open. "And what are you doing up at this early hour?" Her hair was standing up in places, and straw was stuck in it. Her face was turned towards Cassia, but the eyes were still shut.

"Hush, you, Îcause I'm being nice to you. Something I decided I'd try and see how it goes," Cassia teased, finishing the feeding and grabbing their buckets to go and fill them from the barrel in the corner. "Go back to sleep." She avoided answering the part about why she was up so early, when she hadn't been to bed yet.

One brown eye cracked open. "Do you even know how to feed them?" The other eye popped open, and after a second, when shapes grew to defined edges, she frowned softly, seeing that Cassia was dressed in the same clothes from yesterday.

"Sure, you just give them a bunch of hay and some of those oats you always feed them, right?" The other girl started to blush as she realized that Moriko was studying her, no doubt noting that she was still dressed in the same clothes she'd been wearing before nightfall. "See, all fed."

She swallowed the angry retort before it could be uttered. It wasn't her business, it really wasn't. With a sigh, she got up. "It's more than that. It's carefully measured. Too much hay and they bloat. And I have to sleep in here, so I'd prefer if they didn't have gas."

She stood behind Cassia and grabbed the scoop. "It's two-parts of this oat mixture with the hay."

Cassia's shoulders slumped slightly. "Oh. Sorry." She sighed. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea.

Moriko gently bumped shoulders with Cassia. "It was sweet, really, and now you know."

Despite herself, the other girl smiled. "Ok, well, next time you can sleep in without having to get up." She glanced outside and winced as she saw the beginnings of the sunrise lighting up the horizon. "I should go before they find out I was gone."

"Come here." She pulled Cassia into the stall she slept in and tossed her one of the new trousers the girl had bought for her and a shirt. Since they were roughly the same build and height, it would be fine, except, she realized, Cassia had a lot more going on in the chest area. She blinked and looked anywhere else. She'd really not noticed that before. "Put those on in case your mom is up making breakfast."

She nervously ran her hands through her hair, dislodging the straw, and stepped out to give the girl some privacy.

"Thanks." Quickly, the younger girl stripped out of her shirt and pants, gladly putting on the ones that Moriko had offered her. "I'll get these back to you as soon as I can. I bought these pants for you, not to keep me out of trouble." Cassia wrapped up her old clothes in a bundle and stuffed them under a pile of hay. "I'll come get this later, when I know they're both gone." It wouldn't be long now until Nix was up; she usually rose with the sun. "You want to come inside with me?"

"Um..." The animals were fed, so really, there wasn't anything she needed to do for a while. "Sure." She hastily raked her fingers through her hair a few more times and sighed, annoyed at its length. She fished in her pocket for a leather tie. Tied back, she felt much better.

"We could do something about your hair today, if it's bothering you?" Cassia decided it was too late to even try to get some sleep before the day started. She could try to catch a nap later. Moving towards the house, she could hear someone moving around inside, which meant that at least Nix was up.

"It's just long. It's not so bad when it's tied back. I just hate when it gets in my face." She yawned and followed Cassia to the house. As the younger woman opened the door, she said just loudly enough to be heard. "And that's why you feed the Aclens the oat mixture, with the hay." She almost giggled at the odd look Cassia was giving her. "Oh, hi, Nix, I was just showing Cassia how to feed the Alcens."

Nix looked perplexed, then frowned, then looked perplexed again, "Hi, Moriko. Um, pump, er, Cassia, I didn't know you were interested in Alcens."

"Oh, she's not," Moriko broke in. "But I made her promise to get up and help me this morning since I helped her out the other day."

Cassia gave the other girl a strange look then smiled brightly at her mother. "I would rather be asleep," which was the complete truth, as far as it went. "But I did say I would help her feed them this morning, so I had to get up insanely early," which wasn't exactly the complete truth.

"Ah, well, okay. That was nice of you." She looked between the two girls. "Well, have fun today. I've got to finish the repairs on Kelsy and Valla's stove for the Inn." Nix knew, in her gut, something was up, but she couldn't figure out what.

Moriko had no idea why she was covering for Cassia, and looked around the house, not wanting to make eye contact.

"Thanks." Cassia smiled brightly at her mother, grabbed Moriko's hand, and nearly dragged the girl from the room before her mother could figure out what was going on. "Come on·time to show you my room."


Nix still had a perplexed look on her face as she went to start the forge.


Cassia had to hide a yawn, as her body demanded sleep, and she shoved open the door to her room. "It's not big, but it's home." She grinned sleepily. Trying to look awake and alert in front of Nix had been exhausting. I didn't mean to be out so late.

The blonde stood awkwardly, not sure where to sit. "So why did you?"

A hand reached out from the bed and blindly grabbed onto the other girl's arm and pulled her towards the bed. "Sit down," she groaned and rolled over. "I don't know. I didn't realize what time it was."

The room was small but it was her room. The bed occupied most of the space while a simple set of drawers filled up the other wall. Pieces of precious paper were scattered across the top of the wooden piece of furniture, and the shutters were still open from her earlier escape.

Moriko gave a squeak of surprise, but sat on the bed. She snorted in amusement, "You disappeared after dinner. Crow and I didn't buy that I'm so tired act. What were you doing that you didn't realize it was almost dawn?"

The dark-haired girl blushed at the question. "Nothing," she said a bit too quickly. Then sighed and cautiously opened an eye to see if Moriko looked upset. "We didn't do anything, just kissed, and then we went out to the river to swim during the high moon."

"Oh." She wanted to smack her forehead. Of course Cassia had been running around with her girlfriend. "Sounds fun·" Since she'd never really kissed anybody or been swimming, she didn't really know, but didn't want to seem naive.

"Sounds fun..?" Cassia grinned, eyeing the other girl. "You haven't kissed anybody before, have you?"

"Well, um, of course I have." She saw that Cassia wasn't buying it and stopped trying, "No, not really, unless you count Sparrow kissing me. We were both six at the time." She cleared her throat nervously. "Her and her family lived next door to us for a while. We grew up playing together. Her mother died in a mining accident and they moved down to the pass to be with her Muanya's family," she shrugged; it wasn't a very interesting story.

Cassia grinned against the skin of her arm as Moriko avoided part of her questions. "That means you haven't kissed anybody else, right?"

She shook her head, her blonde hair moving with the movement, "No, I um, no. Can we talk about something else?" she asked, her cheeks turning red.

"But this is fun to talk about." Mischievous eyes peeked up at the other girl.

Moriko hid her face in her hands.

Cassia poked the other girl in the side with a giggle. "Come on, what do you talk about with your friends from home?"

"Um, well. I don't really...we talk about Alcens, and they talk about mining. But I really don't have time to do stuff, between taking care of the Alcens and my sisters," she mumbled into her hands, not looking up.

The dark haired teen sighed, leaning back with a frown. "Well then, we're going to change that," she yawned. "Right after I take a nap," she mumbled.

Moriko got off the bed. "Okay, you nap. I'll go do, some stuff."

One eye opened for a moment. "What? You go down there and I'll get yelled at to do things."

Brown eyes stared at Cassia. "Then what am I supposed to do while you're napping?"

"Take a nap too?" The other girl looked hopeful.

Moriko sighed and sat down on the floor. "Okay."

"ÎKay." She sighed sleepily and curled up on the edge of the bed. Then as soon as she woke up, they could see about catching Moriko up on her important life skills.


The woman stopped her work when she spotted the group of people climbing the pass. She'd seen them off and on all day, ever since they started up the steep slope towards the top of the mountain pass where she lived. At first she'd thought it was a company of women from the northern settlement, but then she realized that they rode animals far larger than Alcens.

Now, she brushed off her hands from the dirt of the small garden she'd been tending and moved to stand on one of the large boulders that littered the top of the pass. The boulders fell from the mountains to either side of her from time to time, and sometimes she could hear them thunder past in the night. There she stood, waiting as the first of the strangers finished their long climb.

Valdis rode ahead, her hound, Wraith, following sometimes behind, sometimes in front. The dog loved the new smells. He wasn't very tall, but he was massive, his stocky body running low to the ground. Black fur gleamed from the brushing she had given him this morning.

They came around a corner and he stopped his smelling spree. Standing still, his fur rose along his spine and he growled, exposing long fangs.

Ellris watched the first of the strangers climb the last few feet, only noticing the black dog that climbed with her as they rounded the last set of boulders. She held her hands out, trying to look non-threatening as the dog started to growl. "Hello," she called out, irritably brushing a strand of reddish blonde hair from her face.

Valdis pulled her horse to a stop and called out, "Wraith, heel·"

The dog went silent and walked over to his mistress, but he continued to stare at the woman suspiciously.

With a sigh of relief, Ellris lowered her hands, smiling brightly at the stranger. "Welcome, my name is Ellris." She debated coming down off the boulder, but frankly, the dog scared her a bit.

Valdis dismounted, her blue eyes taking in everything quickly on the mountain pass and cataloging it. Her hand stayed on the pommel of her sword, but after a moment, she let it drop away. "Wraith, sit." The hound sat with a huff. She approached the older woman. "I am Valdis, of the Queen's Guard."

From below them on the pass, shouting and laughter could be heard, but Valdis was almost certain they were at least twenty minutes behind her

"Which Queen would that be?" Ellris hopped down lightly off the boulder she'd been standing on. From here, the small cottage that was her home was just visible around the edge of the same boulder. "You're lucky you chose today to start up the pass, it's the first good day of weather we have had in at least a week."

Reaching up, the young warrior removed her helm, shaped in the form or a snarling dog. A gift from their god was the knowledge of armor and weapons crafting. And for his few chosen was the gift of a half-breed puppy, when one of his favored hounds decided to mate with a common mortal dog. "The Queen of the south," she responded, helm tucked under one arm.

Ellris's eyes flicked to the helm, the uneasy feeling staying with her as she kept her distance from the other woman. There was something about this scout and her dog that made her feel wary. "As all travelers are, she is welcome in my home. You are all welcome to spend the night if you wish." She had never turned away a traveler yet, and the priestess would not start now.

"Thank you. The rest of the party will be up shortly. I drew the short piece of straw and got the task of scouting ahead for danger. I'll warn you, the Queen's party is a handful. Some complain about the weather, some about getting dirty, the others about the lack of servants to wipe their asses." She gave a wry grin. "So maybe I didn't get the bad end of the lot, now that I think about it."

Amazing what a smile can do, Ellris thought as she felt her shoulders relax and smiled back. "If you want, I could invite you in for some tea before the others arrive. You could get a seat close to the fire."

"Sounds lovely· I found out this morning I rather enjoy the tea you brew up here in the north. It's a tad sweeter, and it smells more refreshing than what we have in the south." Her grin got bigger, making her seem her age. "Do you have a place to board the horses?"

The priestess frowned at that; this was going to be interesting. "I have a lean-to that those who bring Alcens up here use to shelter them from the wind. I don't know if it will be big enough to handle your horses though."

Valdis nodded. "We'll make do." She walked back to her horse, grabbing the reins. "Wraith, follow." The hound perked up and trotted over to his mistress, his stumpy tail wagging.

The small cabin was tucked away against the far side of the pass, somewhat sheltered from the howling winds that came through with every storm, and especially during the winter. A simple garden was laid out around the cabin, from which a trickle of smoke curled up out of the chimney. Next to it was a lean-to, with a wall of chopped firewood next to it. "Here, you can leave your horse here. I'll see about getting some tea on for you and the rest of your group." Ellris ducked into the cabin, closing the wooden door behind her.

Quickly, the young woman set about removing her saddle and checking her horse. Wraith whined at the lack of attention and bumped his head against her leg.

"Stop that," she said, lacking any real conviction. "You know, I don't think she's fond of you."

Wraith sat and stared at his mistress, his stumpy tail wagging.

"You, mister, probably shouldn't have growled at her." The dog just kept wagging his tail. With a roll of her eyes, she patted her horse's head and turned to Wraith. "Sometimes I have to seriously question the fact you're half divine animal."


Inside the cabin, Ellris quickly cleaned up her small sleeping area and set her best pot of tea to start heating over the fire. She added a few more pieces of split wood to the fire to get it going, then pulled out some of her bread and carefully horded cheese that was brought up by the women from the valley bellow. There, she surveyed her area with satisfaction. It might not be palatial, but at least it was clean and warm.

Her last action was to close the curtains that separated the special bedroom from the rest of the cabin. It was there that those who sought the Goddess' blessing came to spend the night.

Valdis knocked on the simple wooden door, uncertain if she should just enter. She had removed her simple armor, but kept the short sword at her side, unwilling to part with it in a place filled with so much of the unknown. Her under-tunic, trousers, and boots were colored in red and black, the colors of her god. Her blond hair was pulled back from her face with a simple leather tie, and against the paleness of her skin, the tattoos on her hands stood out. She stared down at Wraith, uncertain to bring him in or leave him outside.

The slightly older priestess opened the door, smiling in welcome as she stepped aside. "Please, come in." She paused at the sight of the dog. "He can come in too, if you want," she offered, proud that she'd only hesitated a little.

"If he makes you uncomfortable, he can stay outside. He is bred for war, I won't deny that, but he can play the role of the house pet." She looked down at Wraith. "Tell the lady you're sorry for growling at her earlier." The stout hound sighed but promptly rolled over on his back, exposing his belly, and gave everyone present puppy dog eyes.

The northerner grinned and dared to give him a quick scratch to the stomach. "Well, he can come in too. How long do you think we have before the rest of your party comes?" She crossed the room to check on the water in the pot.

Valdis grinned. "About twenty minutes, give or take. The twins could do something evil and set everyone back an hour. They already had the priestess of the Goddess of Love sit on an ant hill, which set us back an hour today." Something she had been relieved about, as the woman had finally stopped flirting with her and trying to get her alone.

After that, they had drawn straws to see who should scout ahead, and she had a feeling her mother had stacked the draw against her.

The blonde paused at the fire to look back at the southerner. "A priestess of the Goddess of Love is with your party?" This was going to be more interesting than Ellris had thought. "Who else is coming up the pass?"

"Queen Keshet and the royal twins, Caitlin and Caron·myself and my mother, you could say we represent Vladlin." She paused, since there was always some sort of reaction because they followed a male god. Pleased that the woman had no comment, she continued. "Eira, a gift from the temple of Shadows, she is a bodyguard to the twins. Melody, a Priestess from the Goddess of Death, she's not creepy at all, I never really expected to meet one unless I was on my death bed. They are said to give comfort to those dying. Lilly is the Priestess from the Goddess of Love." She sat down by the fire, Wraith curling up by her side, and she absently scratched his ears.

"I'm kind of suspicious that the Goddess of Shadows didn't send one." A frown broke out over Valdis face. She should have kept her thoughts to herself. The followers of Vladlin were not supposed to speak ill of his twin. But she was concerned, and she wondered about Eira and where her loyalty really resided.

The northern priestess looked a little worried about that as well. With a shake of her head, she poured two cups of tea and let the herbs begin to steep in the boiling hot water. "You are all going to visit Selene?" She brushed a hand through her long hair, pushing strands out of her face.

"That is the Queen's plan. I merely follow and protect." She gave a nod in thanks and took the mug.

"You merely do what you are told?" Ellris raised a finely sculpted eyebrow, somehow not completely believing that as she pulled a chair next to the fire and joined her guest there.

"I have pledged my life and my loyalty to the Queen and to the Land. Unless I feel she has abused the trust to the land in her request of me, yes, I do what I am told." For two years she had fought and killed for the crown, putting down despots who wished to overthrow Keshet. Three months ago she had been asked to become a guard for the Queen. Nothing could have made her more proud, that and in two years she was tired of the stink of blood and war on the field of battle. Considering the god she had pledged her life to, it was odd the fire of bloodlust did not burn in her.

The other woman sipped her tea, considering her words. "I did not mean to cause offense. I only meant that you do not strike me as a simple guard who doesn't have a thought between her ears."

"My mother spent a lot of time chasing after me making sure I went to school to learn the basics of math and reading. But, I admit, I was quick and hard to catch." She grinned to show no offense was taken as she took a sip of her tea with a grin. "So, did you piss off your own Queen to get sent out here in the middle of nowhere?"

Ellris laughed. "No, I chose to come here. I dreamed of this place when I finished my apprenticeship with our head priestess. The day I arrived here, I knew that I would build a house here and serve our Goddess from here." She nodded towards the curtained-off room. "The women from below come here to seek the blessing of the Goddess in the form of children."

Valdis coughed on the sip of tea she was taking and blushed. "Oh, um, well, I guess privacy is good for that sort of thing."

The priestess smiled, her eyes dancing with amusement as she took another sip of tea. "You can't tell me that you are embarrassed to talk about that?"

She had heard stories about the Temples dedicated to the Goddess of Love, and figured it wasn't that different from the south. "I, um..." She blushed even brighter shade of red. "Maybe a little, it's not like I'm a virgin, but well, it's different, somehow, if it's conception," she squeaked out.

This was just too much fun. The northerner leaned forward in her chair, a finger tracing the rim of her cup of tea. "Would you like me to describe the process? You could see if it's any different from how you would normally bed a woman."

"I, um, really, that's okay." Thankfully, Wraith stood up and went to the door, his stumpy tail wagging, which could only mean her mother and her hound, Rage, were nearby. "Looks like the rest of the party is here·" She stood, grateful to have an excuse to focus on something else.

Light laughter followed her, as Ellris got up to join her at the door. "Bring on the rest of the party, then. It should prove to be an interesting night."


Moving as quietly as she could, Ellris opened the door to her cabin and slipped outside. She had to step over two women to make it, but she managed to get out the door without making too much noise. The floor of her cabin was littered with sleeping bodies as the Queen's party rested. They had been an interesting group to host, although Ellris couldn't say she would be sad when they moved on and gave her back her peace. She wasn't much for a lot of people in one place, and the sudden onslaught of talking, laughing, and shouting had started to wear her thin towards the end of the night.

Now she gladly escaped out into the evening, taking her one good robe with her. Even without the bright moonlight outside she would have easily been able to find her way.

Even during the new moon, when it was dark as the pits of the abyss, she could find her way at night. Now, she walked the path that led towards the highest point in the mountain pass easily. The full moon above her bathed the area in silvery light, and she felt the tensions from earlier drain away as she walked.


Valdis woke easily at the silent tread of footsteps, not too concerned, as the pattern was the steps of someone carefully choosing their way, not being stealthy. Her blue eyes pierced the darkness, Wraith stirring next to her. She gave the command for silence, and he was instantly on his feet ready to move. She motioned him to guard the house as she got up and followed the figure in the moonlight.


The slim northerner made the climb up to the jumbled pile of tall boulders to the tallest spot in the pass. There, she paused, drinking in the sight of the valley spread out below her. Turning, she could see the northern side of the pass. And far below her, the silvery ribbon that was the Winderling River. Sighing with contentment, she turned and moved to the center of the boulder, kneeling down in front of the items she'd prepared there earlier. The full moon was a holy day to the northerners, and although she had no one to celebrate with, the priestess would hold her own ceremony tonight.

The piled wood caught fire easily, the small flames racing through the dry tinder and beginning to lick at the piled wood. Carefully, she picked up a length of leather and tied her hair back out of her face.


Wraith watched his mistress leave him, unhappy to be left guarding the house when his place was at her side.

Valdis easily picked her way up the mountainside, sweat slightly damping her back as she reached the high point of boulders just as the fire was lit. She wasn't sure why she followed, Ellris seemed honest and trustworthy. Valdis was certain the older woman meant no one any harm. But still, to be sneaking away in the middle of the night was an odd thing, something she should surely look into.


The simple wooden bowl of rain water was right where she had left it earlier, and she placed it between herself and the fire, arranging herself so that she could see the reflection of the full moon in its surface. "You're welcome to come closer if you want," she called, not turning to look towards the path behind her.

Valdis frowned in annoyance that she had been spotted so easily. Carefully, she picked out a path over to Ellris. "I'm sorry to disturb you. I was...um, curious what you were up to at this dark hour."

A flash of white teeth in the firelight as the priestess smiled. "Wanted to make sure I'm not up to anything that might hurt your Queen?"

"Of course, but I wasn't concerned enough about your intention to grab a weapon, but as mother says, 'better safe than sorry'." She was still dressed as she had been at dinner, in cloth of red and black. It was cool away from her sleeping nest, with Wraith's warmth at her back, but now by the fire, warmth was returning again. "Has the Priestess of Love sent you out in the night to drum up curses at her, or perhaps Eira with her glowering face?" For some reason, the bodyguard had taken an instant dislike to Ellris. "The twins were fond of your cooking and your stories, you managed to keep them calm. You won the Queen's love with that. She was able to actually enjoy her dinner, rather than spend her time apologizing to her dining companions."

The northerner laughed, shaking her head, "None of those. The priestess of love was..." She paused, not sure how to say overbearing diplomatically. Instead, she moved right on to the next topic. "I don't know why Eira seems to dislike me. She hasn't said anything, just glared a lot," she shrugged, dismissing the unpleasant woman from her mind. "I'm here because of that," she pointed up into the sky, "a full moon. Time for me to celebrate She who led us here and blesses us with all that we have."

"Followers of Vladlin celebrate on the night of the Bloodstar." The Bloodstar was an odd event that occurred in winter. On that night, the Followers of Chaos and War met for feasting, drinking, and a display of arms under a moonless sky where a single red star glowed like blood. Vladlin walked among them, feeding on their tribute and frenzy. On occasion, he took one of his best warriors to bed. Twenty years ago her mother had been one of his best warriors. She had met the god once, on the day she was chosen and took Wraith as hers. It didn't take her long to put two and two together, why her mother would never speak of her Muanya, and why her hair was the same white blonde as their god.

"Since you have no weapons, I'm going to assume this is a more gentle celebration."

Ellris grinned. "No weapons involved, although there might be a bit of wine at the end. You're welcome to join me or just watch." She wasn't very clear on what followers of Vladlin did, other than fight, of course. The flames had started to devour the largest of the logs by then, and the area was bathed in the flickering firelight.

"We're all her children." Ellris would enjoy having another present for the ceremony; it had been a while now since she'd shared it with another. "Here, come sit by the fire." She moved a few of the items in front of her to make space.

Valdis sat quietly by the Moon Priestess' side. "Why are you the only one here, in this pass?"

"I'm the only one who was called to stay here. The others come here when they need me, but no one wants to live up here during the winter." It did make things a little lonely sometimes.

"So you train other priestess, is this a retreat to keep their minds pure?" The Temple of Chaos had such a thing, although this was much more pleasant a place.

"Acolytes come here before they finish their training." She added another two logs onto the blazing fire, glad for the warmth now that the wind was starting to pick up. "They come here to clear their minds, and sometimes receive visions from the Goddess."

"I heard a rumor once, when the Goddess of the Moon chooses a Priestess, that they awaken with their eyes turned green. Is that true or were your eyes green since birth?" She studied Ellris' face.

The priestess tilted her head, returning the favor as she studied the other woman. "It's a true rumor. Willow was the first of us to be chosen, but not the last. Have you always had hair so white?" she countered, smiling slowly.

"Yes. I was born with it, a great big mop of white curls." She held up her hands, showing the paw prints. "This is my mark branded in the Temple, showing my devotion to Vladlin."

"It fits you, the hair, that is." The northerner reached forward and picked up the wineskin that had been resting by the fire, warming in its heat. The wine inside had been made carefully over the past month, taking the best wine from the northern fire warriors and mixing it with special herbs. "If you wish to join in the celebration," she offered the other woman the wine skin, with an almost a daring look.

Valdis snorted and took the wineskin. Tilting her head back, she took a long swallow then wiped the redness from her mouth. "Not bad, far better than what we had last night."

"This is the good stuff," the priestess agreed, tilting it back so that she, too, could drink from it. The wine was smooth and had a pleasant taste from the aging it had gone through. The herbs it had been soaked with added an almost smoky flavor. Wordlessly, she passed it back to the other woman. If this had been one of the large gatherings, there would be singing and music to go with the ritual, but she had neither here.

The warrior took another swallow, her skin starting to flush with the alcohol.

They drank until more than half of the wine in the skin was gone and the first tingles of the herbs it had soaked in were starting to be felt. As always, things took on almost dreamlike quality to Ellris, and the northerner slowly stood, careful not to disturb the bowl of water. She offered her hand to the other woman, smiling. "Now we dance."

Valdis stared at the hand for a moment, but then shrugged and took it. "I'm not a great dancer," she warned.

"You'll do fine," the northerner promised, already swaying, her long braid swaying in time with her.

As she was pulled to her feet, she felt the alcohol hit her, and she grinned. "Whoa, good stuff."

Laughing, Ellris drew her into a dance, whirling around the fire that was now more glowing coals than open flames. The moon above seemed to fill the sky with its light. "The best," Ellris agreed, her heart beating in time with their dancing, or was it the other way around? She could never figure it out afterwards.

Valdis watched for a few seconds before she began to move slowly, somewhat awkwardly. She tried to picture footwork for fighting, but everything was just getting jumbled up in her head.

"You're thinking too much." The slightly taller northerner moved behind her, placing hands on her hips and thighs. "Move with the music inside you. Relax and enjoy the feelings as they come to you. Revel in the life all around you, and the feel of the moon and fire."

She blew out a breath and grumbled at the priestess, but slowly tried to shut off her thoughts until there was nothing but the smell of the fire and the sounds of the night sky.

"Good." The word was whispered, almost purred, as Ellris could feel the other woman's muscles relax under her touch. Her movements became more fluid and natural. "Empty your mind of all thoughts, all worries, anything that would distract you."

Slowly, she felt her body loosening up as she moved around the fire.

With a laugh of pure joy, Ellris moved with her, changing the moves until they were moving around the circle. "Don't think, just move." The more they moved, the faster her heartbeat. And the faster they danced, the more dreamlike things seemed. She never knew how long the dance would last.


Valdis was awake at first light, and grinned into the shoulder she was using as a pillow. This was a first; she'd never slept with a Priestess before, especially one who worshipped the moon. "So, was that actually a ritual or were you just trying to get me naked?"

Ellris moaned, not at all ready for the morning. "A little of both," she grinned, which turned into a yawn. "That doesn't always happen, but I won't pretend I wasn't hoping it would."

Valdis gave a gentle kiss to the shoulder before sitting up, "Unexpected, but not unpleasant." She leaned over and gave the woman one last kiss on the lips. "I need to get back. If my mother comes looking for me, it won't be pretty."

That earned her a grin, and the priestess slowly pushed herself upright, wincing, sleeping on bare rock was not very comfortable. Not that they had really been in any shape to notice. "Go on, I'll clean up here." The empty bowl lay nearby. She barely remembered sharing the water inside before they collapsed.

The southerner got up and began looking for her clothes. "She has this odd idea I'm still innocent." Finding her clothes, she quickly dressed, and with a wave, headed on down the path.

The priestess watched her go with a wistful smile. She'd had no delusions going into this what would happen come the morning, but it had definitely been worth it. "Thank you," she whispered, looking up to the sky above, then got up and started to gather the items that had been used last night.


Moriko stared out of the one window in Cassia's room. The other girl still slept, worn out from her night out. She noticed the stout tree branch so close to the window, and knew how the other girl was sneaking out so easily. It was kind of odd how Nix and Selene could miss it. Then again, they hadn't grown up like this.

Muttering a little, Cassia rolled over and tugged the blanket up over her a bit higher, trying to block out the late morning sun. "I don't have to wake up yet, do I?" she mumbled into the pillow.

Moriko grinned and turned. "No," she said softly, thinking maybe it was best if she left. She had taken a small nap, but now found herself wide awake and a little restless.

"You must be bored." Cassia yawned and stretched, uncovering her eyes a little to peer up at the girl by the window. "Did you sleep a little?"

Awkwardly, she sat on the bed, avoiding the girl's feet. "I slept a bit," she confirmed. "But if you need to sleep, go ahead. I'll go take Rose and Ruger out for a romp."

The other girl sighed then forced herself to sit up. "No. If I don't get up now, I won't get up, and then my mothers will be really upset. Even worse, they'll ask me all sorts of questions about why I'm tired." She stretched her arms over her head, rolling her head back and forth as her back cracked.

"At least they care to ask, but you have a point. I looked at some of your drawings." She looked hesitantly at the other girl, afraid she would be mad.

"You looked at my drawings?" Cassia bit her lip, suddenly shy as she looked at the papers that were spread out across the table next to the far wall. "Did you like them?"

"They're really amazing. Do you think it's possible to build something so tall and not have it fall over?" she asked, curious.

With a flurry of tossed blanket, pillow, and flailing limbs, Cassia surged out of the bed and over to the table. She grabbed the papers there and jumped back onto the bed. "I think so. Look, if you build the sides like this, they can support all the floors." She showed Moriko one of the pictures of a large building that seemed to dominate the area it was built on. "I think."

"You should ask your mom, she understands a lot about structural support from all the stuff she makes," Moriko suggested quietly, although she had to grin at Cassia. She'd never seen the woman so animated than she was right now.

She sighed, staring at the pictures that she'd drawn with charcoal on the precious pieces of paper. "I'm afraid she'll laugh at them."

"I doubt it. She might not get it, but I don't think she'll laugh." Tentatively sensing Cassia's distress, she gave her an awkward one-arm hug.

"I know, but what if she doesn't?" Cassia was pretty sure she couldn't live with it if Nix didn't like her drawings. She leaned on the other girl's shoulder, enjoying the offer of support.

She'd already been a disappointment by not becoming a black smith; a second time would be the worst thing she could imagine. She wasn't sure what Selene would think either, since her Muanya seemed to be fine with the buildings on the island as they were. Then there was the fact of how much work it would be to make even one of the buildings in Cassia's drawings to consider. The worst thing, the one that gave her nightmares, was that maybe all of her drawings and ideas were all just the dreams of a silly teenager.

Moriko leaned her head against Cassia's. "You won't know Îtil you tell them. But I think they're amazing. Imagine being so high up, you could see everything, and you'd be that much closer to the moon."

"You aren't just saying that, are you?" Cassia twisted to give her friend a slightly suspicious look. She was starting to think that some of Sable's friends did that anytime she asked them a question.

Moriko bit her lip. "Well, some of them, I think, look kind of weird. I don't like the ones where the tall thingies, um, towers look like they have onions on top. A slanted roof makes sense, for snow, that way it won't build up and cause the roof to fall in. But I guess I'm not one for curves," she babbled out, hoping she hadn't hurt Cassia's feelings.

"Onions on top?" the other girl's eyes narrowed at that. "You don't like curves?" She reached behind her to grab the pillow from the head of her bed.

"What?" Moriko held up her hands. "I mean, I like curves, but well, on the tower thingy, I just prefer your other drawings."

The pillow made a satisfying thump as Cassia whacked the other girl over the head with it in an over handed swing. "I'll show you!" she laughed, swinging again. Enough of this serious talk·

"Hey!" Moriko yelped in surprise. "Unfair, I'm unarmed." She laughed as she got whacked again.


Downstairs in the kitchen, Selene looked up at the sound of laughter coming from their daughter's room. She smiled and looked over at her wife. "I guess they're having fun." She sprinkled more flower on the board she was using to make bread dough. She'd been about to go tell Cassia not to waste half the day sitting in her room.

ãYou sure that it's a good idea leaving them alone up there?ä The smith asked, from her spot at the table.

"I'm more worried about Sable than those two. Cassia won't do anything as long as she has herself thinking that she's destined to be with Sable. That stubborn streak comes from you, my love." She picked up some of the dough from the nearby bowl and started to roll it.

"I have no idea what you're talking about, love. I am not stubborn," Nix retorted with a mock glare.

With a groan, she got up from the table and enveloped her lover in her arms. "I'm going back to the Inn. I almost have the repairs done on the Valla and Kelsy's stove."

Selene laughed. "Of course you aren't." She gladly leaned against the strong body of her love. "I can't wait until your new apprentice comes, then you won't have to work so hard."

"And after a year I can retire and take advantage of being the Queen's, what was it that Crow said...Rezan. Sleep the day away, take the Queen swimming, and other stuff." She gave Selene a kiss on her earlobe.

"You'll have to fill me in on that other stuff part." Selene sighed with pleasure at the touch and reluctantly let go of Nix. "Go on now before our daughter comes down to find her mother taking advantage of her Muanya."

Nix snorted, "Okay." She looked up at another squeal of laughter. "I'm going with your and Crow's judgments on Moriko, 'cause I'm just going to admit now that I'm overprotective."

The other woman smiled and gave her a push towards the door with a pat on her ass. "Go on. I'll go make sure that you are just being overprotective and break up whatever is going on upstairs."


"Then she went home and found out that she'd left her door open and all of the chickens she'd been arguing about had run off!" Selene grinned at the laughter from those at the table, sliding the fresh bread over towards Moriko for the other girl to grab some. "Needless to say, she didn't come back to complain about them."

"Moriko and Cassia helped." They'd burned the first loaf, but the two of them had managed to do a good job on three others.

Cassia smiled at the memory of how they'd spent the afternoon. The burnt bread had been perfectly fine after they'd cut off the burnt part, and ate the left over with jelly.

"Hey! I would have warned you, but nobody told me it was my job to watch the bread," Moriko grumped good-naturedly.

"Well, this loaf turned out wonderfully," Nix said, tearing off another piece.

Selene looked around the table, enjoying the easy banter that was taking place this evening. What a difference a few nights had made. Crow had a seemingly limitless store of stories to tell, and Cassia had been on her best behavior. It felt like a true family dinner, and she shared a smile with her wife. If only every dinner could be this nice, which was something she prayed to the Moon Goddess they'd be allowed someday, probably after Cassia grew out of her teen years.

"I'll get it!" Cassia was out of her seat before anyone could answer as the doorknocker she'd made was put to use outside. With a yank, she pulled open the door, her smile becoming strained when she realized who was standing on the other side.

"Uh, hi," she smiled at the three people on the doorstep.

Sable gave a happy little wave from where she was standing flanked by both her mothers, with a smaller, nervous looking woman standing behind them. Cressida and Oriana were both on the short side. Oriana had a shrewd, calculating look to her face, one that made you feel like you were being appraised and given a price for your value. Cressida was curvy, although as she got older, her curves were becoming more of a round, she smiled, a lot and appeared nice, but the smile never reached her eyes.

ÊBehind them, nervously shifting from foot to foot was their servant, Alma. Slender like a reed, she always looked like she wanted to be somewhere else.

"Muanya, I think this one's for you." The youngster stepped back out of the doorway to allow the small group inside.

Oriana and Cressida both bowed to the royal family. "Oh, you're eating dinner. We didn't realize," Cressida simpered.

Nix bristled, Crow just looked amused, and Moriko leaned back to be hidden in the shadows of both Nix and Crow.

Oriana's gaze slid over all three of them, dismissing them as having no value on what was to happen.

ÊSelene hid a sigh and stood, returning the bow as she stepped in front of the chair that Nix was sitting in to block the view of her wife's face from the guests. "We were just finishing. What brings you all here tonight?"

Feeling like things were just about to spiral out of control, Cassia closed the door behind the four visitors, smiling a little at the nervous looking servant. She gave a questioning look at Sable, who just smiled in return.

Oriana smiled, "Your Majesty, we were concerned that nothing was going forward on these tasks. The happiness of not only the north, but of two young women, is being held up. Sable agreed to these...well, rather pointless tasks, wouldn't you say, two days ago. Yet we have heard nothing."

"I would not say they're pointless," Nix barked out, trying to get up, but Crow had a firm grip on her belt.

Sable moved away from her parents and gave Cassia a nearly full body hug. "My parents thought things were moving too slowly. Isn't it great? They just want us to be happy," she whispered to her girlfriend.

"Yeah, great," Cassia awkwardly hugged her back, catching sight of the look on Moriko's face as she did.

Selene firmly put herself between Nix and the visitors, hoping this wasn't going to end with someone being thrown through a window or door.

"We have had to take our time setting tasks that would be fair and truly test anyone who wishes to become the next Rezan," she replied smoothly. "In fact, I believe that representatives from each of the families should be gathering tomorrow."

Moriko desperately wanted to be anywhere other than here. She didn't deal with conflict well, and seeing Cassia with that twit wrapped around her, made her realize that sooner or later, Sable would put her foot down on their friendship, and then she would lose Cassia, and that made her feel slightly ill.

Cressida laid a hand on Oriana's arm. "See, dear, I told you. You were just getting upset over nothing. They want our girls to be just as happy as we do."

Cressida knew that it was far from the truth, if the look in the smith's eyes was anything to go by. She smiled that fortunately, that brute would have no say in it. They had already hired a few stupid thugs to help their daughter win the tasks. And once that was over, they would be royalty. They could control trade, legalize slavery, and all sorts of things that would make them richer.

If Selene's smile was forced, thankfully only her family knew her well enough to tell, she hoped. "That is all that we wish for, to make certain that they are both happy." She stressed the word both slightly.

Just as awkwardly as she'd started to hug Sable, Cassia let go of the other girl. Not sure where to stand, she stepped aside, standing by herself a little ways into the kitchen, separate from both sides.

"I know I'll be happy once we're wed," Sable chirped in happily, as she tried to cling to Cassia.

"Selene! Selene!" Someone who sounded like they had just run up a mountain was shouting the Queen's name. The door burst open. "Selene..."

Now what, the Queen almost demanded. Instead, she slipped through the four guests to the doorway and the panting woman that was leaning against the doorframe. The woman wasn't familiar, but that didn't mean anything with the way the outer settlements had spread out. "What is it?"

"I've...I've come from Abnoa pass." The woman's sides heaved as she sucked in air. "I was sent to tell you the Royal family from the south is on its way for a visit. They were only a day behind me."

There was a moment of silence as everyone in the house absorbed the news then chaos erupted as everyone started talking at once. The room was not big enough to house all of these people at once, and Selene stared at the messenger in dismay as the people behind her started excitedly talking.

Nix finally got loose from Crow's grasp and shouted. "Shut up!" When she had everybody's attention, she looked at Sable and her parents. "You'll have to excuse us, but now we need to start preparing for a Royal visit."

"But we can..." Cressida started, only to be steered out of the house with Sable, Oriana, and Alma in tow.

"We'll let everyone know when they're here so you can all bow and simper to your hearts content." And she shut the door in their faces. Her blue eyes looked at Selene. "Honey, I think we should look into getting you a royal guard."

"Don't you start with that again. I'm not going to have people standing around me with swords all the time. How would people come to talk to me if they get scared away by mean looking women?" It was an old argument, one that neither was going to win right now. Instead, she gave her love a grateful look and turned to the messenger, who was still leaning against the wall wearily. "You look like you are about to fall over. Do you have a place to stay?"

"I...I hadn't thought about where I would be sleeping," the woman admitted.

Nix, still in dictator mode, looked at Cassia then to Moriko. "You two go get Moriko's stuff out of the barn. She's sleeping in your room tonight so this nice young messenger can sleep in the stable." She shrugged in apology. "The royal house was not built for entertaining."

The woman nodded, happy to be sleeping somewhere safe and warm.

"Where are we going to put these southerners?" Selene frowned. This was going to be interesting.

"Then I want you two to go down to Valla and Kelsy's Inn and see if they have room to host the Royal Southern family. You're mother and I, are now way busier than I thought we'd be," she said to Cassia.

For once, the teen just nodded and opened the door, glad that Sable and her family had departed. She waited for Moriko then slipped out, heading for the Inn. "Don't worry, we'll go by the market and see if we can find something you can sleep on in my room."

Moriko just nodded and followed silently behind the Princess.

No doubt Sable's mothers had immediately fled off to begin their own preparations. Cassia sighed and turned to the other girl, worried that Moriko hadn't said a thing since they'd burst in on the dinner, "You all right?"

Moriko pursed her lips. She really didn't like Sable or her parents, they were just...not good people, was the best she could come up with. However, in her experience, nobody really wanted to hear the truth. When they were in love, they just wanted to hear how wonderful everything was. "I'm okay, that was just a little weird." And creepy, how Sable's mothers had just looked at her and dismissed her as nothing.

"Sorry." Cassia felt the urge to apologize, even though she wasn't really sure what she was apologizing for. "I didn't know they were coming." They walked down the main street of the town. It wouldn't take long for the news of the impending royal visit to spread.

In fact, Cassia was pretty sure that before dawn tomorrow morning, most everyone would know about it.

Moriko just shrugged. She was kind of nervous about sleeping in the same room with Cassia for some reason, and she'd miss Rose and Rugor, the Alcens a comforting presence when she slept.

"Should we get my stuff first or go to the Inn?" she asked.

"Your stuff, then we can go to the inn. The market won't stay open much longer; everyone will be starting to shut up shop now." She grabbed Moriko's hand and started to run down the street. They'd have to hurry to get there before everything was closed. Enough time to question Moriko later.


Moriko shifted again on her nest of blankets, trying to get comfortable. It was hard to sleep on the floor. She missed the night sounds in the barn, the comforting shifting of the Alcens, or the sound of Talon fluffing his feathers.

"Are you awake?" a whisper came from the bed above her.

Moriko looked up into the darkness. "Yes," she whispered back.

A shuffle of blankets as Cassia moved closer to the edge of the bed to peer down. "I'm sorry we couldn't get something better for you to sleep on."

Moriko shrugged, but then flushed when she realized Cassia couldn't see her. "It's okay. It's just quiet. I'm use to the sounds in the stable." She paused for a second then asked hesitantly. "Are...are you going to sneak out to see Sable?"

"No." She was sure she didn't want to sneak out tonight. "I mean, unless you want me to so you can have the room to yourself?" Cassia had the awful thought, that maybe Moriko wanted her gone.

"No! Um, no, I just didn't want you to think you had to stay if you'd rather be with your girlfriend. It's, um, okay, you know...if you want to go see her." She bit her lip to get her mouth to stop running, and felt like an idiot.

"No, I'm fine here," which was completely the truth, something that Cassia didn't really want to think too hard about. She moved even closer to the edge of the bed so she could see the other teen in the dim light coming in through the window. "You can't be comfortable lying on those blankets."

"It's not too bad. Your mom was able to scrounge enough blankets. I have a nice bit of padding going on. It must be weird for you to share your space."

"We'll have something better for tomorrow." Cassia bit her lip. "Come up here," she suddenly demanded. "I can't sleep knowing you're down there suffering on the floor."

Moriko sat up and leaned against the bed so her head was next to Cassia's. "You feel guilt at the oddest times." She lightly knocked her forehead into Cassia's.

"That's 'cause I'm strange, everyone will tell you so." She grinned in the darkness.

Moriko grinned, loosening up a little bit. "That's it, the whole north is doomed once you're Queen."

"But it will be a fun doom. I'll make it a party." She laughed then scooted sideways until there was room on the bed. "Get up here so I don't feel bad about you sleeping on the floor."

Moriko sighed, feeling awkward. She felt kind of funny crawling into bed with Cassia, which was a very intimate action, and the thought of sleeping next to her friend made her mouth dry and her palms sweat. She started to move up onto the bed then stopped. "I'm fine on the floor," she squeaked out then hastily cleared her throat.

The other teen sighed and reached down to grab her hand, "Stop being silly. The bed is plenty big enough and I don't smell." She pulled, trying to get Moriko to get up on to the bed. "I feel weird talking to you when you're down there."

Giving up, Moriko finished climbing up into the bed. "You win," she said with a mock grumble, trying to get comfortable.

"Just don't steal all of the blankets." Cassia poked the other girl in the side, tossing the blankets over both of them. "See, isn't this more comfortable?" The lack of a second pillow might become a problem, she realized.

"Me steal the blankets?" she snorted. "You're the blanket thief. The other night in the barn you stole mine and were snoring like a drunken Alcen, in less than five seconds."

"What?" Cassia looked horrified. "I do not snore!"

"Yes you do," Moriko said, teasing. Then she opened her mouth and imitated the girl's snore.

She made it nice and loud, and obnoxious, which earned her a thwap over the head with the pillow.

"I don't sound like that! You never stop moving when you sleep, you keep rolling around and kicking like an Alcen."

"Yeah, well..." was the best Moriko could come up with for a witty comeback. She grabbed at the pillow and missed, and ended up getting smacked with it again. Huffing, she dug her fingers into Cassia's sides, looking for her ticklish spots.

"No fair!" Cassia tried to avoid shrieking, well aware that her parents were probably asleep in the next room over. In desperation, she tried to get away and fell straight off the edge of the bed to land with a thud on the floor. A groan followed, drifting up from the spot where Moriko had been laying before.

Positions reversed Moriko looked down from the bed to the floor. "Oh shit. Are you okay?" She strained her hearing to make sure Nix wasn't going to come bursting into the room.

"You kicked me out of my own bed," came the grumble from below as Cassia picked herself up. She was going to have to get her revenge for this.

"It was an accident," Moriko said, worried when Cassia ignored her outstretched hand. "Um, do you want me to sleep on the floor now?"

The girl narrowed her eyes then leapt onto the bed, tackling Moriko. "I'll show you an accident!" she responded, her fingers probing for ticklish spots.

Moriko's eyes widened and she gave an 'uff', as air was rapidly exhaled. "I...don't...have...any...ticklish spots," she said, squirming around on the bed. It wasn't a lie, doubting Cassia was going to go for her feet.

The tickler gave a huff of annoyance as she failed to find a single ticklish spot in her attack. How was she supposed to get revenge if the other girl wasn't ticklish? "Everybody has a ticklish spot." She was almost sure that was true, and narrowed her eyes, staring down at the girl under her as she tried to figure out where she could be ticklish.

Cassia's fingers stilled as she watched something change in Moriko's eyes. She wasn't sure what it was, but a flitter of excitement swept up her spine. She was suddenly aware of the other girl's body beneath hers in a way that was so powerful it took her breath away. She could feel their legs entwined, and the place where they pressed against one another. It was sudden and strong.

Moriko tilted her head to the side then placed her hands on Cassia's thighs. "Hey, are you okay?" She had been expecting a second attack, but then Cassia's body language had shifted, to something. The best word she had was 'different', because she didn't have a reference for the look in the girl's eyes.

The dark-haired girl licked her lips, wanting to do something, not sure what it was, but scared of it at the same time. "I'm fine." She managed a shaky smile and rolled off Moriko before any of those half formed images tempted her into doing something she was pretty sure would be a bad idea. "Sorry." She didn't know what she was apologizing for.

Moriko frowned, feeling like she had missed something, but quickly pushed it away. "No need to apologize. I started it, after all."

Picking up the blankets that had been pushed off, she pulled them up over both of their bodies. "We should get some sleep." Something had almost happened there, something Cassia had wanted to happen, which was impossible, because she was supposed to be with Sable. Wasn't she?

Somewhere between trying to figure out how to make Moriko feel better and trying to figure out what had changed, Cassia fell asleep.


Moriko was up and out in the barn with the Alcens before the sun had dusted the sky with color. The messenger was still snoring away as she poured the feed into the troughs. Rugor hooted at her and tried to shove his nose in her stomach, but she just pushed his horned head away. "Come on, I'll take you out later for a run." He just hooted and stuck his nose into his feed.

She felt different, and since she couldn't get the memory of Cassia out of her mind, the way she looked, the way she smelled, and the way her hands felt touching her, even if it was an innocent I'm going to tickle you touch. She had a suspicion she was attracted to her.

She groaned and put her head in her hands. She had finally fallen for somebody and they were taken. Goddess she was just like her mother.

"Hey." The voice was shy and not far away, as Cassia stopped by the edge of the barn, looking awkward and unsure of herself. "You got up early." In fact, it was beyond early, and she was pretty sure Moriko hadn't slept at all.

Moriko's head shot up out of her hands, "Oh, um, hi." She quietly moved out of the barn and over to Cassia, "Just had to feed the Alcens." She stood awkwardly next to Cassia, but not too close. "Um, you're up awfully early too."

The Princess shrugged in response. "I woke up when you got up." The reason being she had been using the other woman's arm as a pillow. "Did I snore again?"

"No, and um, you never snored the first time, I was just teasing you. You knew that, right?" she asked, suddenly afraid she had hurt Cassia's feelings.

Cassia smiled weakly. "I didn't? You had me worried." She shoved off from the side of the barn and gestured towards the house. "Want to make breakfast for my parents? That should destroy their image of me."

Moriko nodded. "Sure, I could do that. You want me to get some eggs?"

"Good idea." The strangeness of the moment was fading, and Cassia wondered if she looked as relieved as she felt. She didn't want things to be strange with Moriko. She liked the girl, maybe a little too much. "See you inside?"

"Yeah, I'll be right in." She gave a good attempt at a smile and went to the back of the barn for some eggs. She just needed to get her head straight then she could ignore her feelings. Maybe a nice hunt with Talon would get her mind off things.


Valdis rode ahead of the traveling party, who were quiet for a change. The cold temperature up at the top of the pass, followed by more riding, had shortened tempers and ceased the pointless chatter. She had to smirk. The Priestess from the Temple of Love was looking like she was seriously regretting her choice of skimpy clothing, which meant she was now trying to get Valdis' cloak rather than into her pants.

A smile broke out, hidden by the snarling hound's head helm she wore, as she spotted the ferry barge that Ellris had told them of. Her smile became even warmer remembering her night spent with the woman. She was glad there had been no awkwardness the next morning. It had been fun, but she had no plans of settling down, her life was for her Queen and country, for now.


"Last chance love, you could still take Crow and run north," Selene whispered sideways to the woman standing next to her as they waited with the rest of the small crowd. Behind them, the ferry barge that would transport them back to the island stood ready. They could see the first rider moving down the road towards them, and Selene straightened, letting out a breath. "Here they come."


She pulled the reins of her horse to a slow stop as she spotted women standing on the shore. Panting, Wraith followed at her horse's heels. Slinking around the horse, he eyed the women warily, waiting his mistress' command.

For a moment she looked at the women before her. Most looked uneasy, a few let their hands brush crude swords at their sides, but she dismissed them as any sort of threat. Easily, she dismounted and removed her helm. "I am Valdis of Queen Keshet's guards."

Stepping forwards, Selene smiled in welcome to the stranger who had ridden forwards. Behind her she could see Willow near the edge of the crowd watching with interest and curiosity. "Welcome to the north, Valdis. I am Selene." Even now, she didn't call herself a queen. "This is Nix, my wife," she motioned to the tall blacksmith, "and our daughter, Cassia."

Valdis gave a respectful bow and threw in a wink at Cassia. "I am very happy to meet the royal family. I was sent on ahead to make sure the way was clear." And even with the small band of thieves, the way had been excessively dull. Wraith had growled out a vicious warning snarl that had them running.

Ê"They should be only a few minutes behind me. Queen Keshet wanted me to apologize ahead of time for the twins. They are um...a handful."

For once, Nix and Sable had something in common; they both huffed when they saw the wink the young warrior gave the Princess.

Cassia's smile widened at that, and she looked even more interested in their visitor.

Sending her daughter a warning look, Selene motioned to the ferry behind them. "How many are with your party? We might have to make several trips out to the island."

"There are twelve of us, Lady Selene," Valdis responded respectfully, not liking the glower she was getting from the smith. That was probably one woman who could hurt her.

Twelve people and their large horses...it was going to take at least two trips on the ferry, not to mention the crowd of people that were already gathered here. "We could remain here to wait for your party, or go on to the island and send the ferry back for them." Selene left it up to the scout, trusting her to know her Queen better than she did.

"Queen Keshet doesn't rule on formality, which is fun to watch, because it drives the other Priestesses crazy." Valdis made a face. "Oh, I should probably warn you we have Priestesses from the Goddess of Love and Death with us. Lilly, the Priestess from the temple of Love, is a bit..." She flustered, unable to think of a good word. "She's overly friendly with her hands and her ideas about her Goddess," she blurted out.

"Good to know." Selene smiled and waved towards the ferry. "I can stay here to greet your Queen with Nix. Willow?" The priestess stepped closer. "Could you see our guest to the island?"

The head priestess bowed. "It would be my pleasure."

Cassia snuck closer as well, intent on going as well.

Valdis bowed again then took a firm hold of her horse's bridle and led him towards the ferry. She whistled for Wraith, and the thick hound bound to her side.

Willow led the way down to the ferry, grinning as Nix grabbed Cassia to keep the young woman from following. Once they were on the ferry and starting across the Winderling, the priestess turned to their visitor. "I hope you have had a good trip so far?"

Valdis stowed her helm, happy not to be wearing it, and turned toward, judging by the green eyes, a priestess of the moon. "It has been pleasant. My mother came with Morgan sixteen years ago and spoke of the harsh landscape and the cold. With my eyes I see a beautiful landscape. However, at night it's still damn cold."

Especially if one was doing a Moon Goddess celebration in the middle of the night with a frisky priestess who was able to get your clothes off. She grinned at the memory.

The older priestess' smile widened at the expression on the other woman's face. "Did you, by any chance, encounter one of my sister's up in the mountain pass?"

She nodded, "Ellris. She was gracious enough to feed us, and let us stay the night at her humble retreat."

"She is doing well, then?" Willow asked, just a touch too nonchalantly.

A bit smugly, Valdis replied, "She seemed to be doing very well, when I, we, left this morning."

The head priestess laughed out loud at that. "Were you there during a full moon?"


She winced internally at the slip, but betrayed nothing on the outside. "Last night was the full moon, so yes, we were there." She stared at the priestess for a second. "Is there something in particular you wanted to know?" she asked bluntly.

"I just wished to know if Ellris was doing well. It has been a very long time since I have climbed the pass, and the last acolyte was several months ago. That is all." Willow touched the other woman's arm. "I did not mean to imply anything."

"Fair enough... I spent enough time this morning with my mother fishing around for why I wasn't at my post outside the Priestess' home, without going through another fishing trip. I hate fishing, it's boring." She gave an easy grin, showing she wasn't upset.

The ferry bumped up against the dock on the island side of the Winderling. "Come, I will show you where you and your Queen will rest. Then later you can come see me at the temple and I promise not to fish." The older woman led the way off the barge.


Keshet gave a sigh of pleasure as she spotted the ferry dock, as did the women standing by it to welcome them. All she wanted was to get off the damn horse and into a hot bath.

Penka signaled for the party to come to a halt. The Queen's guard Capitan stayed seated, assessing the women in front of her. She frowned seeing her daughter had gone on to the other side, which wasn't proper behavior; Valdis should have waited for them.

Keshet frowned as well, but was unhappy to still have her ass in the saddle. "Everyone, get off their damn horse and show these women some respect."

"My Queen, we haven't been announced," Lilly's low, husky voice broke in.

"Yeah, well, sitting on a horse towering over folks shows a distinct lack of respect. It's best to be on a level playing ground," Keshet said and dismounted with a happy grin. The twins tumbled off their horses, grinning like fools, and took off for the ferry dock, leaving Keshet with the feeling one or both would be really wet soon.

"You must be Queen Keshet!" Selene called from the group of women still standing by the ferry docks. "You're rider has gone ahead to see to your accommodations on the island."

"Cailin, Caron, don't fall in the water..." her shout was cut off by a loud splash, "never mind." She pinched the bridge of her nose then looked at Selene. "I'm Keshet, those would be my twins. And oddly, Morgan described you and your burly smith perfectly. You must be Selene and Nix. You know, Nix, she never got over the fact you beat her in arm wrestling."

Nix blushed, but gave a slight bow to the southern Queen. "I'm a smith...she really should have seen the outcome before we started."

Keshet gave a loud laugh, "Morgan was a warrior, and never was one for believing the odds. If she had, we wouldn't have become the Queens of the South."

"I am sorry to have heard about her death, my condolences. She was always a staunch supporter throughout our journey here." Selene hadn't had much to do with Morgan, but her brief visits had revealed an honest and quick to laughter woman.

"Thank you. I miss her everyday. But the twins don't give me too much time to dwell on it," she replied, her smile dimming just a bit.

Cassia appeared at her mother's elbow, whispering to Nix. "Should I go make sure that those two are all right?" she asked, hopefully, as she watched the twins splash in the water. They looked like a lot more fun than the polite hello's going on with the main party.

Nix smiled and nodded, "If you think you're up for it. They don't look like proper princesses, they look like they enjoy wrestling and getting dirty. Bowing doesn't look like something they're fond of."

That was true, Cassia looked a little uncertain. They did look a lot different than Sable and her friends, but she had the sudden idea that maybe Moriko would like them. "I should learn to get along with other people." That was something Moriko would say, she was pretty sure, and she reached up to give Nix a kiss on the cheek before bounding off after the twins.

"You must be tired from the journey." Selene gestured towards the ferry barge that had just pulled up to the dock and was being tied down. "Come, we have a place for you to rest and recover. Then perhaps later you would do me the honor of coming to our house for dinner?"

Keshet nodded, "A rest sounds lovely, and dinner later even better. Since it will be a royal dinner, I think I can ditch my traveling party, but only if you think you're up for me and the twins."

Selene had to work at not laughing. "As long as you can take our daughter and whatever mood she happens to be in at the time." She stepped aside as the party started to lead their horses down towards the ferry. ãOr any of my daughter's friends..." Now, to make sure that Sable and her family didn't show up tonight. She wondered if maybe she should have Nix board up their doorway, then dismissed the idea wistfully. That wouldn't set a good example for Cassia.

"I've survived Brody and the twins, and just now, I survived those damned priestesses bickering and whining across the pass. Dinner shouldn't be a problem. So how about you take us across this ferry thing so I get the twins into some dry clothes. Then we shall have a lovely dinner," she said as Penka came up behind her and took the bridle, the warrior looking annoyed as Eira followed at her heels.

The Queen's face took on a guarded look as well.

With a glance from one face to another, Selene nodded and led the way towards the ferry.

While the first ferry load was being sorted out, Cassia moved over to the edge of the Winderling and watched the two girls who were splashing around in it. Nix had been right; they didn't act like what Cassia had been told Princesses should act like at all. "Umm...hi," she called out.

Caitlin looked up from where she had her sister pinned in the mud. Her short dark hair was just shaggy enough for it to dip in front of her gray eyes. "Hi!

"I'm Cassia, are you Caitlin or Caron?" She couldn't tell which was which.

Caron looked up, her face covered in mud, the only thing visible were her gray eyes. "I'm Caron. The brat on top of me is Caitlin." She grinned, her teeth very white against the muddy darkness of her face, and shook her braided hair.

"Cassia, we're taking the first group over, stay with our guests and come over on the second ferry," Selene called from the barge as they started to pull away from the dock.

Cassia waved, rolling her eyes. It was what she said she'd do.

"Mom made us get different hairstyles so I'd stop sitting in on Caron's math classes," Caitlin said, tickling her sister.

The still dry teen blinked as she looked back at the two mud wrestlers, for the first time noticing the difference in the hairstyles. "Hey, those are nice." She looked closer at the braids. "I like that, how do get all those braids to stay like that?"

"Little leather ties, and a lot of help," the one on the bottom said with a grin. "Hey, Caitlin, get off, will ya, it's getting cold."

"Can you show me how to do that?" Cassia's eyes lit up. She'd be the first one on the island with hair like that - it would be great.

"Yeah, I can," she grunted, and tried to push her still grinning sister off of her.

Caitlin rolled her eyes and finally got off her sister.

The teen hesitated for a second, since the hand held out to her was covered in mud. With a mental shrug, she reached out to grab the slippery hand and try to pull one of the twins up.

Caitlin laughed and batted the hand away that Cassia was offering. "Don't fall for that. She can get up fine on her own."

Caron rolled her eyes and hopped up.

The northerner eyed the two twins suspiciously. "You two get in a lot of trouble, don't you?"

"Us," Caitlin said, making her eyes wide and batting her long, thick eyelashes, "never, we're sweetness and light."

"Sure you are." Cassia didn't believe a word of it. "Come on...let's see what trouble we can get into in the town." She was pretty sure that the three of them could get into a lot of trouble.

Caron started laughing so hard she almost fell back down into the mud. "All the time... But look at them," she pointed to the riding party, the stern Penka, the brooding Eira, the scantly clad Lilly, and the rest of the party. "It's so hard to resist, especially Lilly, she thinks she's so hot like no one can resist her sex appeal. We made her a very special seat."

Caitlin chuckled, "Right on top of an ant hill."

Laughing, Cassia shook her head. She couldn't believe they got away with that. She was pretty sure her mother would have killed her if she'd ever done that to a priestess. Of course, none of the Moon Goddess' priestesses ever dressed that skimpy.


"Can you believe that the Queen of the south is here?" Cassia was literally bouncing around on the bed in excitement. "And the twins are fun. You have to meet them." She smiled at the other person in the room.

Moriko quirked an eyebrow at the hyper young woman, "I take it everything went good today?" She had missed hanging out with Cassia, but was glad she hadn't been asked to join. The thought of meeting all those important women made her stomach twist into knots. "I got a good ride in with Rugor. And Talon and I caught a couple of pheasants for dinner," she added in not nearly as excitable tone as Cassia's.

With one last bounce, Cassia stood up, "You have to show them Talon; they'd think he was great." For some reason, she was eager that the twins both liked Moriko. She wanted them to think her new friend was amazing. "You ready for dinner?" She could hear her parents moving around in the kitchen below as they prepared for the upcoming dinner.

"Sure. Crow said she'd roast the birds in her honey walnut sauce," the other girl said, nearly drooling. "She got some from Willow, somehow." Moriko secretly thought that Crow and the Priestess had a secret love thingy going on, but knew better than to say anything, walnuts were pretty rare, and honey was only easy to get if you had someone dumb enough to go into a hive and get it.

Moriko was certain a priestess could convince someone to reach into a hive of bees and steal honey.

That sounded delicious, and Cassia could feel her stomach rumble in anticipation. "Cassia, Moriko, time to set the table!" Selene's voice echoed up the stairs. And with a grin, Cassia grabbed the older girl's hand and pulled her out of the room.

Crow was tending the birds on the fire when they came down the stairs, with Nix and Selene making preparations for the rest of the dinner. The fire in the main room of the house was blazing, shedding light throughout the rooms. Nix had stoked it high in deference to the southerners' problem with cool weather.


Keshet was trying to brush off her foul mood as she strode over to the Queen's house. It had been one thing after another. First, Eira didn't like being left out, and started ranting about her job as a bodyguard. Then the Priestess protested being left out of the loop, and leaving the Queen in the clutches of heathens. At least the twins were clean and dressed somewhat nice. Caitlin was dressed in a soft green dress, while Caron was in a dark brown shirt, and trousers. Keshet knew they did it as a ploy so folks would assume Caitlin was the nice one, the sweet one, Caron merely following her sister's lead.

Finally she had gotten a dinner party of her, the twins, and Valdis for protection. Penka, she was certain, was making the girl work guard duty because she wasn't happy the way her daughter had left them at the docks.

She went to raise a hand to knock, but found Valdis in her way, and with a bow and wink, the younger woman was using the knocker.

"Not those dishes, Cassia! The nice ones, put out the nice ones!" a voice from inside called, followed by a muttered comment from the girl in question.

The twins snickered, but looked innocent as their mother leveled her mom gaze at them.

Nix wiped her hands on a towel and went to open the door. "Honey, guests are here." She blew out a breath and opened the door.

With a glare at her daughter, who had suddenly decided to be less than helpful and was only now managing to finish setting the table, Selene went with Nix to the door. Smiling at the people outside, she motioned them to enter. "Welcome, come inside, please."

Valdis bowed to the smith and the Queen, but didn't miss the quick frown the smith gave her. "I have the honor of presenting Queen Keshet and the Royal twins Caitlin and Caron."

Keshet sighed. "Valdis, stop with the formalities. I want to eat, drink, and be warm, so move your butt out of the doorway."

Valdis smiled and moved into the house.

Keshet beamed as she stepped into the house and the warmth instantly surrounded her. "What a lovely place you have. It's so inviting and homey."

The house wasn't designed to host this many people, and the night was going to be a bit cozy. "Cassia, pour our guests something to drink." Turning to Keshet, she led the other woman towards the chairs around the table, extra ones had been placed around it. "It's good enough for Nix and I, we haven't had cause to want anything larger."

"It's a lot cozier than the manor," Caron said.

"That thing's drafty and huge," Caitlin agreed.

Grabbing Moriko, Cassia pulled the other girl over towards the twins, while the adults did their mingling thing, to introduce her.

Moriko had instantly gotten nervous once she'd gotten downstairs, not having realized dinner meant with the southern Royal family. She nervously let Cassia drag her over to the younger women.

Caron beamed. "Heya, Cassia, who you got there?"

"Caron and Caitlin, this is Moriko." The youngster smiled at the twins then left Moriko for a moment to start handing out mugs of mulled wine. "I'll be right back, but I better help, you know how mothers are."

"You don't have any servants?" Caron asked, suddenly realizing there was nowhere to put servants.

Moriko bristled, waiting to yet again be mistaken for help.

"Nix doesn't believe in other people doing the work for you," Cassia answered, handing the three of them a mug of wine before moving towards the adults.

The three took the wine and stood awkwardly for a moment.

Keshet smiled. "How thoughtful, thank you, Cassia," she praised the young woman as she was handed a mug. "Ah, if only some of your manners would rub off on those two."

Selene took one of the offered mugs from her daughter, whispering, "Play nice" before turning back to Keshet. "I hope that the rooms at the Inn are all right for you and your party?" Not that there was any other place for all of the strangers to room on the island.

"See, she thinks I have manners," Cassia said to her mother, handing Nix the third mug before blushing and offering one to Valdis.

Valdis took the mug with a wink and a quiet thank you.

With that, Cassia practically fled back to the three other youngsters. "Did Moriko tell you about her hawk Talon? He's amazing, comes right to her arm when she holds it out." She tried to hide the blush by talking faster.

This time Nix had missed the wink, but Moriko hadn't, and frowned a little into her mug.

Caitlin grinned, "Really? A pet hawk, can you train him to steal people's hats?"

"Or better yet, train him to poop on people's heads," Caron burst in excitedly. The three other teenagers just looked at Caron in disgust.

"She's not a pet," Cassia spoke up for Moriko, trying to get the other girl to get involved in the conversation. She wanted these three to like each other darn it, and that wasn't going to happen with Moriko just standing there looking like she wanted to be anywhere but here.

"Um, he and I go hunting. He caught dinner tonight, actually," she responded, warming up a bit. "He's beautiful, with reddish-brown feathers, and his tail feathers have black tips that look like a stripe."

Caron looked at the two girls. "Cassia, is Moriko your girlfriend?"

Caitlin rolled her eyes. She had been working on her twin to think more before she blurted out the stuff on her mind, which was sometimes fun, but this wasn't one of them.

The northerner blinked in surprise at the sudden question that had come out of nowhere. "What?" she asked, intelligently, eyes wide as she tried to figure out an answer. This should be simple; she should be able to answer this. Then why wasn't she?

"No, um, Cassia's girlfriend is Sable. We're just friends," Moriko answered instead, with just a hint of sadness. She cleared her throat and looked into her wine again.

"Yeah, friends," Cassia smiled. See, that hadn't been too hard to answer. "Why?" she countered, narrowing her eyes at Caron, and wondering what had prompted that sudden question. A horrible thought crossed her mind as she wondered if maybe Caron had plans.

"'Cause she looked unhappy when Valdis flirted with you," Caron replied with a shrug.

The wine that Moriko was sipping on suddenly went down the wrong pipe and she began coughing, her face turning bright red.

The dark-haired girl turned red as she stared at the southerner. "Valdis didn't flirt with me!" Her voice went up a few octaves, and she nervously looked toward the adults to make sure they were still deep in conversation. Then she patted Moriko on the back to help her.

Lowering her voice again, she hissed at the other girl, "She didn't flirt with me," still patting Moriko on the back.

Caron looked at Caitlin, who just grinned. "She flirts with everybody, she just likes women." She giggled. "She slept with that older priestess, the one in the pass."

Caron hit her sister. "Caitlin, some things should be private, you shouldn't have said."

Caitlin just shrugged, and Caron shook her head, her braids moving with the movement.

The northerners stared at the two southerners with almost identical expressions of surprise at that. "Ellris..?" Cassia whispered then grimaced at that image. "Okay, no more talking about older people sleeping with other people." Ellris was a friend of her mothers.

Moriko quickly drank her wine and went to get some more. The twins were like a thunderstorm, they just rolled right over you and you did your best to survive."

By the time she got back, Cassia had recovered a little from the previous outbursts that had rocked her world. "You need to show us how to do that to your hair though," the dark-haired girl was saying, pointing at Caron's braids.

"Yeah, it's fun, and easy to take care of," Caron said. "Caitlin did mine, so she can show you how to do it. You just have to take it out a couple times a month to wash your hair then put it back up."

The sharp crack of the doorknob froze everybody, most eyes turning towards the door. Nix frowned, having a good idea of who thought they could get away with disturbing them.

"Excuse me, Keshet." Selene gritted her teeth and followed her wife towards the doorway. They exchanged a look, both of them knowing who it probably was at the door. "I don't suppose we could just ignore them?" Selene asked Nix, hopefully.

"Maybe I should tell Valdis they pose a threat to Queen Keshet," Nix joked. She took a moment to prepare herself then went to open the door.

The Queen was pretty sure that wasn't going to work, although it was tempting. With a sigh, she went to see who was at the door as Crow finished her cooking of the birds and got the youngsters to help start carrying food over to the table.

Valdis felt the tension and instinctively put herself in front of her queen, her hand groping for the sword Keshet had made her leave in her room.

Nix opened the door and pasted a fake grin on her face that made her look more sick than happy.

Cressida, Oriana, and Sable all stood at the front door. They were all dressed in their best clothes, their fingers decorated in gold rings. "Nix, how lovely to see you...ä

"Cressida, Orianna, what a surprise." Selene pasted on her own smile, although hers looked more real than the one that Nix was wearing. She purposefully stood in the middle of the doorway, looking down at the two women and a small shape in the back that was probably Sable.

Nix just blinked at the warm reception, thankful her wife had better people skills than she did.

"What can I do for you this fine autumn evening?" she asked the three who were outside.

"Well, since we're practically family, we knew you wouldn't want us to miss out on meeting the royal family. So it will be less awkward later after Cassia and Sable get married. This way everyone will know each other," Oriana spoke while Cressida simpered and smiled.

Sable looked slightly dazed, but followed her mothers into the house.

Caron and Caitlin did a double take and stared hard at Cassia. "You're getting married?" Caron blurted out.

Moriko wanted to go hide in the barn with the animals.

The teen looked from one twin to the other, feeling more uncertain in that single moment than she had felt so far since they'd announced their intentions. "Umm, well, I mean...yes?" That didn't come out like she had wanted it to.

With a frown on her face, Selene closed the door behind the pushy people. Now, how to get rid of them without causing a major scene in front of the southern Queen?

Oriana went to take the southern Queen's hand, only to find it halted in Valdis' firm grasp. The warrior's eyes were narrowed and had a dangerous glint in them. "Lady, I don't know who you are. I do know you were not invited. So unless you want to lose that, don't be placing it anywhere near my Queen."

With a comforting pat on Nix's arm, the northern Queen moved closer before one of the two did something idiotic. "Oriana, Cressida, may I present you the Queen of the south." She, on purpose, left out Keshet's name, forcing them to address the other woman formally.

Turning towards Keshet, she nodded towards the two women and their daughter. "This is Oriana, Cressida, and their daughter Sable."

Oriana's face was pale, and Valdis released her grasp one finger at a time, until all that was left was the red imprint of her hand.

Cressida cleared her throat and both smiled, weakly this time. They bowed, "It's a pleasure to meet you, your Majesty."

Keshet's face gave away nothing, but she nodded her head in return and whispered something to Valdis. The young woman snorted, but backed up a step.

At least this time they were acting more respectfully towards their guest. Selene caught Keshet's eyes and smiled. "I am certain they have just come to pay their respects to you and then will leave so that you can enjoy the dinner we've prepared for you."

The couple looked at each other uncertainly; this was not going at all like they planned. That move with the Queen's guard had changed the whole dynamic, having been called on their behavior, and could not take back control of the evening.

Oriana cleared her throat, "Um, yes. We hope that you have a lovely stay in our humble town. It's nothing like the city of Thullis that you and Morgan founded, but it has its bright spots."

Selene nodded to Nix, giving her wife a slight gesture towards the door of their home. Now was the time to get them out before either of them made things worse. "Now that you've paid your respects..." Selene took Cressida's arm and started to steer her towards the door, leaving Oriana to Nix.

"Oriana, Thullis is a pit of political backstabbing. The only nice thing is the garden Morgan made for me. I much prefer the peace out here. I shouldn't have to worry about snakes waiting in the grass." The gauntlet was throne, it was subtle, but still, Oriana didn't miss it.

The merchant bowed again and let Nix lead her to the door. As they reached the door, Sable looked around, confused. Her parents had told her they were having dinner with Cassia and the royals, but now, they were leaving. Even worse, Cassia didn't even try to come over and speak with her. She threw the other woman a look that meant she was in so much trouble later.

With a happy sigh, Nix firmly shut the door.

In the silence that followed, Selene gladly leaned her head against Nix's shoulder for a moment. With a sigh, she pushed away and smiled weakly to their guests. "My apologies for that, they are...eager...to make an impression."

Cassia bit her lip, worriedly watching her girlfriend as the door shut on them. The look she'd just been shot by Sable had not been a pleasant one.

"It's nothing I haven't dealt with before. They are politicians, they seek power any way they can. My sympathy to your daughter," she smiled wanly, then perked up as Moriko brought her more wine. "Aren't you thoughtful..." Moriko just blushed, making the Queen laugh.

Moriko scampered back over to the others. "Good move with the wine. Bonus points with that." The teens praised, giggling as they made Moriko turn even redder.

The fourth of the young women shook herself out of her worried look and turned to Moriko, nodding in agreement. "See, you're good with people."

"Um, Cassia, not to be rude, but your future wife doesn't seem that bright," Caron said, only to wince a second later when, Caitlin elbowing her in the ribs.

Moriko decided to go see how much longer dinner was going to take, and scurried into the kitchen to check in with Crow.

"She's nice, you just don't know her." That sounded lame, even to Cassia's ears. Shaking her head, she pointed towards the table. "Look, how about we just forget about Sable for now? Help me carry over the rest of the food?"

Caitlin and Caron looked each other, "Uh huh." Then they trailed after Cassia.

Moriko came out of the kitchen with a platter full of roasted pheasant in a honey-walnut sauce, nearly bowling over Cassia. "Sorry," she said as the sauce splattered up, sprinkling her face in a few spots.

The younger girl danced sideways to avoid something worse, grabbing onto Moriko's arms to steady them both. She grinned in amusement at the sudden distraction. "How nice to be dancing with you..." she joked as the adults started to take their chairs at the dinner table.

Moriko chuckled. "We'll have to do it sometime when food's not involved." It was out of her mouth before she'd really thought about it. "I should go get this on the table," she added in a rush of words, and moved towards the table.

"Oh, be quiet," Cassia said to Caron as the other girl watched the exchange, eyes dancing with amusement.

Crow came to the kitchen doorway. "Come on, ankle biter, the food's not going to move itself to the table, so stop looking at Moriko's ass and take the steamed squash to the table."

At the table, Selene was happy to have relative calm return. "As you can tell, your arrival has caused a lot of excitement," she told Keshet.

Keshet sighed and relaxed for the first time in a long time. "I can tell. How odd people forget not too long ago we were all equally nothing in Korgon's lands, slaves, the cattle had it better than we did. In the south I have petty despots trying to reinstate slavery. Can you believe that? It amazes me how some can fall back on what we hated so much."

Reaching over, Selene took Nix's hand in hers, and nodded in understanding. "There will always be those who will try to become what we all struggled against, those who forget our past." They would have to do something about that, some way to tell their descendants why they had done what they had done and where they had come from.

Keshet nodded, "I have women like Valdis who go out and fight and die for my honor. To uphold the laws Morgan and I felt were worth living under. It's never easy. For Morgan, it was easier 'cause she was out there leading them. But I'm no warrior, and I feel bad every time."

"We haven't had those kinds of problems, not yet, anyway." Selene passed the food towards the person to her left, and gave Moriko a reassuring smile. The girl looked slightly petrified to be there right then.

Keshet smiled as she bit into the pheasant. "Mmmm, this is lovely." She turned to Selene. "Enjoy it while you can. Well," she thought for a moment, "I guess your faith paid off. You have less people and a lot of land. Fierce land, that will bond you together, you have to work harder together to maintain what you have."

Caron rolled her eyes and mimicked her mother, only to wince when her mother smacked her in the back of the head.

Cassia leaned closer to Moriko, whispering, "They're gone now, you can relax a bit." The older girl looked like she was going to pass out.

Moriko gave a weak grin at Cassia, but said nothing, not having anything positive to say about Cassia's soon-to-be in-laws.


"That went pretty well, right?" the teen asked, staring up at the stars above them, the weight of the blanket on her a pleasant feeling against the cool winter air. Cassia turned her head to the side to regard the other three girls who were up on the barn roof with her.

"This is so cool," Caron said her voice filled with awe as she stared up at the stars.

"Your mom is nice," Cassia said, lowering her head to stare back up at the night above.

Caitlin looked over at Cassia. "Mom is mom. Your mothers are pretty nice too."

"You all right over there..?" Cassia called to the other side, a little worried about how quiet Moriko had been since the beginning of dinner.

Moriko shrugged, "I'm okay."

"You're not still overwhelmed by eating dinner with us, are you?" Caitlin asked.

"Um..." Moriko stuttered out nervously.

"That's so cute," Caitlin said, running a hand through Moriko's hair.

For some reason, Cassia didn't really believe the other girl. Getting up, she moved around Caron, who was staring raptly up into the sky, past the leaning Caitlin, to settle on the other side of Moriko.

Moriko squeaked and jumped, landing on Cassia.

"Ack!" Cassia caught the other girl around the waist and steadied her, blinking in surprise at Moriko then frowning at Caitlin. "Hey, stop that." She wasn't sure what she was annoyed with, but she didn't like Caitlin being so close to Moriko.

Moriko blushed, tangled up with Cassia. She quickly scrabbled over Cassia and plopped down on her other side.

Caitlin huffed, not understanding what the big deal was. Cassia had made it clear that she and Moriko weren't dating, and the older girl was cute in an awkward shy way. Caron looked over and chuckled.

The other girl glanced from Caitlin to Moriko, frowning a little. That had been unexpected. "Umm...anyway...how long do you think your mom's going to stay here?" She liked the twins; well, she liked them when Caitlin wasn't trying to slide closer to Moriko.

"It's okay, Moriko, Caitlin will only bite you, if you ask her real nice," the twin said with an evil grin, which only caused Moriko to blush harder and Caitlin to try and smack her twin. "Maybe a week or so...depends on how much she likes being away from her life, I guess." Caron chuckled and moved out of the way of her sister's swing.

Moriko groaned and put her hands over her face. She thought she had seen all the tricks, thanks to her sisters, but the twins had a few she hadn't, and Caitlin was making her really uncomfortable. "Thank you, but I really can't imagine being bitten as a fun thing, so I'll pass," she mumbled through her fingers.

Caitlin snorted. "Shows what you know," she snapped out before turning her attention to the stars.

It was really hard not to try and give Moriko a hug, considering how cute the other girl looked in her embarrassment. So instead, Cassia crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Caitlin. "Do you always move so fast?" So much for trying to avoid the situation entirely...

Caitlin rolled her eyes. "Life's short. If I spent my time wondering and worrying about what was proper, I'd miss out on a lot of fun. Brody's going to be the next Queen, so it's not like I can shame the Royal family with my behavior. Besides, she's cute in a quiet, nice way. It's refreshing from all the posturing warrior wanna-be's running around the manor."

"I'm right here, could we not talk about me," Moriko stated, her face still hidden by her hands.

Caron flicked Caitlin's ear and moved so she was looking at Cassia over her sister. She could sense things were going downhill. That was her talent, knowing when they needed to stop before their mother dished out real punishment. "So what's up with your marriage requirements? Is it true anyone who wants to marry you needs to complete some horribly hard tasks?"

She shrugged, even though the others couldn't see it. "Willow announced it. There's some sort of tasks set up for anyone who wants to marry me." She laughed, a little nervously. "That's just to keep people from trying to marry me simply because I'll be the next Queen."

And that wasn't Sable, because Sable was going to do the trials for her.

"So, is your girlfriend going to do the trials?" Caron asked before looking at her sister. "You don't think this is giving mom any ideas, do you?"

Caitlin shrugged. "Probably it's mom," she replied.

Both turned and looked at Cassia, waiting for her to answer.

"Of course Sable will do them," she answered, a little defensively "She promised she would conquer all of them for me." Cassia bit her lip, trying to picture Sable doing any sort of trials. It was hard to imagine.

"Oh," Caron said. "Her family looked like they were only in it to get the Queen part added to their names." Sable and her family reminded her of a lot of women her mother dealt with; all of them only interested in power.

Moriko bit her lip to avoid saying anything, but Caron just said what she had been thinking.

That was the first time that anyone had actually said anything like that to her, and Cassia sat up quickly. "You think she's just in it because I'll be the Queen?" she sounded horrified.

"Actually, I think she's in it 'cause that's what her parents told her to do. I hate to tell you, but your girlfriend doesn't look like she's ever had an original thought," Caitlin said with a sweet smile.

The other girl narrowed her eyes as she stared at Caitlin's outline in the darkness. It was hard to glare at someone that you couldn't see. "You haven't even met her except for two minutes at dinner!"

Moriko stayed very quiet, not really wanting to get into it.

"Whatever... All she did was look to her parents the entire time. They told her where to stand and what to do. The only thing she did on her own was glare at you," Caitlin stated.

Cassia was starting to get really annoyed with Caitlin, as the girl kept pushing every sore spot she had. "She likes me because I'm me, not because her parents want her to. You don't know anything about what you're talking about. You're just jealous because you'll never be a Queen yourself." She knew she was being nasty, but she didn't care.

"No I'm not. I certainly do not want to be Queen. And I'm really grateful I don't have some simpering girlfriend who couldn't find an original thought even if one bit her on the ass," Caitlin replied.

"Hey!" Moriko said sharply. "Stop it, you two!"

Both girls turned on her and told her, "Mind your own business!"

"At least I don't have to have a permanent babysitter around me all the time like Valdis, just to make sure I don't run off." Cassia gave the other girl a shove on her shoulder.

"You're just jealous she's watching me," Caitlin taunted back, with a shove of her own. "I've seen how you get all flustered when she winks at you."

"Why, you little bitch..." Cassia tackled Caitlin. That was it! She wasn't taking any more crap from this annoying southerner.

Caitlin's eyes went wide and she tried to throw the taller girl off her. While she wasn't as big as Cassia, she was scrappy and used to wrestling with the soldiers.

Moriko and Caron watched them roll around on the rooftop. Caron laughed out loud while Moriko looked worried.

The two wrestlers rolled across the roof, each of them trying to get the upper hand. Cassia was bigger and had wrestled some before, but Caitlin definitely was faster and had some nasty tricks up her sleeve. With grunts and curses, they tumbled across where Moriko was lying and straight off the edge of the roof.

Both expressions changed to ones of horror as the two young women fell from the roof.

"Shit, they better be okay or I'll have to work in the kitchen for a month," Caron moaned out.

There was a shriek as the two girls fell off the edge of the roof, followed a second later by laughter from the ground below. "I hate you!" Cassia yelled from the straw she was laying on, laughing and tossing a handful at the other girl.

Moriko scrambled to the edge of the barn's roof and looked over the edge. Not seeing anything, she moved quickly to the window they had crawled out of from the hayloft to the roof and into the barn. Easily, she scrabbled down the ladder and out the doors. "Cassia, are you all right..." Her words fell flat and she frowned seeing the object of her worry playing and tossing hay at Caitlin. Annoyed, she crossed her arms over her chest.

Laughing, Cassia ducked a handful of hay that Caitlin had tossed her way then looked up at the sound of Moriko's voice. "That was fun!" she smiled, teeth white in the darkness.

Not certain what she was feeling, something between relief and anger, the blonde turned on her heel and stormed off.

Caitlin laughed and fell back into the hay pile. "Never mind, Moriko is too grumpy, you can keep her."

"Moriko?" Cassia stopped moving and watched her go in surprise, then turned and tossed hay at the other girl. "Why'd she leave?"

Caron yelled from the top of the roof. "'Cause she cares about you. You two just scared the crap out of us. I think I need to go change my trousers now."

"Eww, Caron. No need to be gross," Caitlin yelled up at her twin.

"I'm just joking," the reply came. "I'm not serious."

"Sooo..." Cassia looked from one twin to the other, having to tilt her head far back to look up at the girl on the roof. "Should I go after her or just let her be?"

"Is she really that dense?" Caron asked.

"I'm not dense!" Cassia was getting a little annoyed again.

"Guess so," Caitlin replied.

The northerner sighed and sat up in the pile of hay that had been placed next to the barn. "Would you two stop being annoying?"

"Just do what you think is right," Caitlin said, tossing straw at her.

"Can't have regrets if you tried," Caron added.

"If I tried what?" she asked, although Cassia had a sinking feeling she knew what, as she scrambled out of the pile of hay.

Caitlin rolled her eyes. "If you wonder how things might have been if you'd gone after her." She paused. "Or don't. I don't care."

The teen shook her head then tossed a few pieces of straw at her. "Thanks." She stared off in the distance towards where Moriko had stormed off. "You two know how to get back to the Inn, right?" Her mother would kill her if something happened to them.

"Yeah, Valdis or Eira will come looking for us sooner or later. They can always find us."

Caitlin might have been annoying, but despite herself, Cassia liked her. "Good night, then, I have to go see about not having regrets." Now, if she could just manage to find Moriko, Goddess only knew where she'd ended up on the island.

"Good Luck," Caron said then shouted, "Look out!" and jumped from the roof into the hay.


She didn't have the thick leather protector for her arm, so Talon couldn't land there. Instead, she found a sturdy branch that made an L shape and stuck it deep enough into the ground for him to rest on so Moriko could be close to him.

She sat on a rock and gently stroked the feathers on his neck and back, he occasionally nipping at her fingers trying to find a treat. "I don't know, Talon, I was probably being an ass, but she scared the crap out of me. I had a flash of her broken and bleeding body in my mind when I ran down that ladder. Then she was just laughing like it was no big deal."

He puffed up his feathers and shook himself before settling back down.

"I know, silly, huh." Talon just regarded her quietly. "Maybe I should wander down to Abnoa with those women who separated to watch the pass into the north. This thing..." She paused, feeling uncomfortable evening talking about it with Talon. "Well, let's say I don't want to be my mother, falling in love with someone who can't... Let's just say I don't want to be my mother."

The hawk nibbled at her fingers.

"Hey," a quiet and uncertain voice called from the edge of the trees. "I thought you might come here. Actually, I was hoping you would be here, because I didn't know where else to look for you."

"Oh Goddess," Moriko said quietly, and covered her face with her hands, embarrassed. Talon gave a soft shrill little cry in welcome and bobbed his head a few times.

The other girl stopped in her tracks at that, a worried look on her face. "Umm, do you just want me to go?" Maybe this wasn't a good idea.

Moriko blew out a breath. "No, no, I was...I was just kind of embarrassed." She cleared her throat and looked up at the other girl.

"Oh, all right." Cassia resumed her slow approach, smiling as she spotted Talon in the moonlight. "Hi, Talon, you look very regal at night," she told the falcon.

As if understanding the words, the falcon stretched his feathers out and flapped them for a second before resettling on his perch.

Moriko smiled softly and rested her chin on her fist. "You know, you gave me a really good scare," she said, finally breaking the silence.

The dark-haired teen approached the bird and his friend carefully, as if both were wild animals that would bolt if she moved too quickly. "I'm sorry about back at the barn," she apologized. "I didn't want to scare you, but Caitlin was being soo...ugh, and then we rolled off the roof, and it was really fun landing in that pile of hay."

"I'm sure it was fun, but I didn't know you landed on the hay. For all I knew, you two were on the ground dying," she snapped back then frowned. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to snap at you." She sighed and rubbed her face.

"Don't worry. I'm sure I deserve it." Cassia gave her a weak smile. "Can I sit with you?" She felt nervous at being here, at being close to Moriko, but she wanted to be anyway.

"Sure." Moriko scooted over on the rock.

Sitting down in the free space, Cassia glanced up at the nearly full moon. "I am sorry I scared you, it just kind of happened." She risked a grin over at the other girl. "I'm glad the hay was there, though."

Moriko leaned over and bumped shoulders with her. "I'm glad the hay was there, too. I don't know what I would have done if you'd been hurt." She blushed lightly and cleared her throat. "I'm glad you're okay. I'm sorry I overreacted."

She grinned, bumping her shoulder back against hers. "It's all right." She looked around the silent woods that were around them. "So, what do you do when you run off into the woods alone?"

"I, um, I talk to Talon," She replied hesitantly, although her embarrassment was lessening, since she was fairly certain Cassia hadn't been there long enough to have heard her earlier conversation with Talon.

"Does he talk back?" That was interesting. Cassia leaned closer to study the falcon with interest. She'd never heard of a bird talking before.

"No, silly, he's a bird. But he does listen real well," she said, leaning forward a bit and stroking his neck.

Talon cocked his head, but then started preening his wing feathers.

That got a giggle out of Cassia, and she turned towards Moriko, lowering her voice. "I'd listen well if you wanted to tell me something too." She smiled her most charming smile.

"Well, at least you speak back." Unthinking, she reached up and brushed some straw that was stuck in Cassia's dark hair, laughing lightly as the fibers broke apart and rained down on the girl's shoulders.

The dark-haired girl wrinkled her nose at the straw, trying not to sneeze, and failing. "That's the problem with hay, it gets everywhere." She wasn't sure why they were whispering. Cassia caught the other girl's hand, tentatively holding it.

"I think something's trying to nest in there," she joked. Automatically, she said, ãBless you," then blinked and went quiet as the other girl took her hand. She swallowed nervously.

Caitlin and Caron had told her to avoid having regrets, and it sounded like good advice to Cassia. Licking lips that had suddenly gone dry, she tilted her head slightly and leaned closer, whispering, "You know what?"

Moriko's heart started pounding in her chest, and was slightly embarrassed that her hand was all sweaty. "Um, what?" she asked quietly.

"You're really cute." The dark-haired girl was barely talking, afraid she was going to fall right off the rock. With excruciating slowness, she leaned closer and brushed her lips against Moriko's. It was a bit clumsy as a kiss, and Cassia half slipped off the edge of the rock as she lost her balance, but managed to hold on long enough to at least give the other girl a light kiss.

Talon, figuring he wasn't needed anymore, flapped his wings and sprang easily up from the makeshift perch he was on.

Moriko never noticed. Her nose hurt from where she had banged it against Cassia's forehead when the girl slipped, but still, overall, it was the best kiss she'd ever gotten. She let go of Cassia's hand and grabbed her around the waist to prevent her from falling anymore. "I...I...think you're cute, too."

The other girl let out a burst of surprised laughter when she got an impromptu hug from Moriko, returning the favor and hanging onto her tight. "Sorry about that, I slipped."

"No more falling tonight," Moriko whispered into Cassia's hair, only to sneeze the next second as straw tickled her nose.

Cassia nodded in agreement then impulsively stood up and pulled the other girl to her feet. "Do you dance?" she whispered.

"A little," the older girl stuttered out, but let herself be pulled to her feet. "My Muanya taught me a little, said women like women who can dance. But I only could follow her a little bit." In truth, she had felt like she had two left feet when her Muanya tried to teach her.

"Want to try?" Cassia looked at the other girl, eyes dark and hooded in the pale light of the moonlight. She wasn't thinking anymore, she was just enjoying the moment, relishing it. Sable didn't exist, her parents didn't exist...nothing outside of this little clearing did.

"Okay." She smiled nervously and wiped her sweaty hands on her pants before taking Cassia's. Her Muanya had been a slave on a ranch. It had been hard, wild work, but even the slaves had been treated better there, the hard work everyone shared bonding them. Her mother knew wild, racy songs with wilder beats that required twirling dance movements and fancy footwork. She loved the fast paced music her Muanya would sing or play on a beat up fiddle. She was lucky, she guessed, her Muanya's owner had died and her Muanya had been sold to the field hands with Selene, or she wouldn't be here with Cassia.

She started to hum one of the tunes, slowing it down to the level she could go at. And with a gentle squeeze to Cassia's hands, started to move them, guiding the other woman into the steps she knew. The dancing wasn't as racy or wild, but it took on a life of its own that made her blood race and pound in her ears.

"And you said you only danced a little?" Cassia whispered, a little breathless with surprise and excitement as Moriko led the dance. It was different than any of the dancing that she'd done with the other girls, this was wild, and definitely faster moving. The steps were unfamiliar, and she found herself leaning into Moriko, letting the other girl's body show her the steps as they moved.

Moriko grinned; actually feeling relaxed for the first time in a while. "You should see my Muanya, she's amazing. This is only about half the speed that it's supposed to be danced at, but I can't keep up. It makes me dizzy," she confided.

"Dizzy can be good," Cassia smiled, a flash of teeth as she nearly tripped over the other girl's feet then hastily corrected herself to continue the dance. "Know any others?"

Moriko slowed them down, her breath streaming out in white puffs in the cooling night air. "Um, I know a waltz, which is kind of formal, and I trip over my feet a lot, and a few variations of this one."

She was grinning from ear to ear, her skin buzzing where she and Cassia touched. She wanted to either kiss Cassia or have the girl kiss her again, but didn't want to ruin the fun they were having. Part of her mind was well aware of the fact that reality lurked outside this clearing, a world where Sable and Royal families existed.

This time Cassia took the lead, taking them through a slower dance that was filled with a lot of twirling. "Know this one?" She grinned, liking the warmth of the other girl's body against hers.

Moriko giggled, getting dizzy. "The twirling dances always make me dizzy. Careful or I'll fall over." Just as soon as she spoke, she mis-stepped and nearly bowled them both over.

The teen wrapped her arms around the other girl, holding her tight to keep them both from falling over. "Wouldn't want that, would we?" she whispered then ducked her head, not able to resist tasting Moriko's lips again.

Moriko held on to Cassia as well, and even though she wasn't well versed in kissing, she was relaxed enough to let her instincts help out. She held the Princess reverently, all pretense of dancing coming to an end, so enraptured by the sensations that kissing Cassia was causing.


Dark black eyes, invisible in the surrounding darkness of night, watched the unfolding scene. White teeth were illuminated briefly in the darkness, as lips pulled back into a sneering smile. Then in a second, eyes and teeth were gone, leaving only the night and the sharp, cracking retort of a broken, dried out tree branch that was stepped on as the woman walked away from the scene.


Moriko didn't feel much like getting up, despite how much Rugor was hooting to get fed. Last night had been horrible and wonderful. Cassia had kissed her. Kissing Cassia had made her feel so amazing, but then there was the whole crash and burn.

She groaned and rolled over in the straw, remembering the crack of the branch. It had been loud, echoing menacingly in their glen, and had ended their dance. Cassia had panicked and fled, and she had returned to her nest in the barn, not even trying to attempt to go up to Cassia's room.

Finally, Moriko gathered her courage to face the day. She drew back the covers and threw on some clothes over her sleep shift. The morning light came through the cracks in the wooden beams. She tossed the grain mixture into the feeding trough, snagged the water bucket, and stomped out of the barn. She nodded at the Queen as she saw her leave the house, with goodbye kiss from a rumpled looking Nix.

That touching scene just made her mood fouler.

"Have a good day, Moriko," Selene called out, heading towards the center of the town and the Inn that was there.

Moriko grunted and lowered the bucket into the well, "You too, Selene."

The older woman hesitated for a moment. Moriko was often shy, but she'd never seemed unhappy before. Selene changed course, walking towards the well and the girl who stood by it. "Is everything all right?"

Muscles popped on her arms as she pulled the rope, raising the bucket. Giving a squawk of surprise, she let go of the rope, then tried to catch it again, only to let go again as the rope ripped the flesh of her hands. She turned sheepishly and faced the Queen of the north. "Um, everything's fine."

Selene winced in sympathy and caught Moriko's wounded hand. "I didn't mean to startle you, child." There was a red stripe down the center of the teenager's hand, and it probably hurt a lot. "We should get that looked at, just in case."

"It's... It will be fine." She blushed as Selene took her hand. "I'm sure you have more important things to do."

The older woman smiled gently. "I'm early. Cassia is in a foul mood this morning, so I'm leaving Nix to deal with her," she confided with a grin. "Now let's see what we can do." The Queen finished hauling up the bucket of water and used the contents to rinse Moriko's burn. "We can put some of that ointment that Willow's priestesses make later."

Moriko ducked her head. "Thank you," she said softly.

"Stay here." The older woman quickly ducked back into the house, coming out with a length of clean linen strips. These she started to wrap around the teenager's hand, trying to keep the wound from getting rubbed on anything. "Are you sure you're all right?" she asked quietly as she bandaged. It didn't escape her notice that her daughter and Moriko were both upset, or that Moriko had apparently slept in the barn last night.

"Yes." She really didn't want to talk about her problems with Selene, since the Queen's daughter was the source of her problems. "I was just out too late with the royal princesses."

"Hmmm..." Selene's non-judgmental response as she finished tying the bandage. "Come see Willow or one of the other priestesses later, and they'll put an ointment on that." She touched Moriko's shoulder to try to make sure she had the girl's attention. "You can talk to me if something is bothering you. I like you, Moriko, you're a good person, and I think you're a good friend for my daughter. If you need to, you know where I am, or Nix, for that matter."

"Thank you," the young woman replied, but kept her head ducked, not meeting Selene's eyes.

The queen sighed then stood up. "Well, have a good morning, then. I'll see you later."

Moriko nodded and returned to the well, to get water for the Alcens.


Nix frowned and stared at her daughter, uncertain what to do. The girl was mashing her oatmeal to death with her spoon. Considering that oatmeal was already pretty much mashed, that was impressive. "Pumpkin, I didn't think my oatmeal was that bad. It's one of the things I think I cook fairly well."

"The oatmeal is fine." Cassia glared at her bowl, smashing the contents a few more times just to make sure that it wasn't going anywhere. Stupid, why had she listened to the twins? She should have known it was a bad idea! Now look what had happened, she'd kissed Moriko and someone had seen it.

"Okay, then." Nix just stared at her daughter's profile for a second, hoping for a clue. Not getting one, she bravely trudged in. "Is there something bothering you?"

"No," was the nearly growled answer as Cassia shoved away the bowl of oatmeal, having decided she wasn't hungry.

"Okay." Nix slumped in her chair. She was horrible at this. "So what are you and Moriko doing today? You taking her to that swimming hole all you young women are so fond of?"

Cassia frowned. No, that seemed like a really bad idea right now. With a sigh, she slumped back in her chair, staring at her mother. "Mom, what do you do when you do something stupid? I mean, how do you fix it?"

"Um..." Nix blinked, taken by surprise. "Well, it depends on what stupid thing I've done. Normally I just apologize or I hope nobody noticed my stupid act."

"Oh." That wasn't as helpful as Cassia had been hoping for, and the teen transferred her stare to the bowl of oatmeal. "What if you aren't sure who to apologize to?" she asked quietly. That was what worried her the most. She wasn't sure if she should apologize to Sable for kissing Moriko. Or to Moriko for freaking out and running off. Shouldn't she know which one to do?

"Pumpkin, maybe if you were a little more specific, I could be a bigger help?" She stared hopefully at her brooding offspring, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door.

It was on the tip of the teenager's tongue to confess what had happened last night, and she wasn't sure whether to curse or praise the interruption. Jumping up, she ran over to the door, yanking it open to see who had interrupted the conversation.

Sable's narrowed eyes bored into her girlfriend as the door opened. "We need to have a talk," were the horrible words that came out of her mouth.

Cassia physically cringed. Those had to be the most horrible words she'd ever heard put together. "Bye, Mom," she called over her shoulder to Nix, then stepped outside and shut the door behind her before her mother could ask any questions. "What's wrong?" She smiled feebly, her stomach churning.

Nix waved weakly.

Sable turned to her girlfriend and looked at her. Her parents had given her a weird talk this morning, about doing whatever was necessary to keep Cassia's focus on her. She didn't get what they were hinting at. Of course she had Cassia's attention, she loved Cassia and Cassia loved her. Her parents told her all the time how she was meant to be Queen and Cassia's wife, what else was there? But Cassia had been rude to her last night. "You are in trouble for last night," she snapped out.

The other girl felt like she was going to throw up. "For last night?" she asked weakly. Any second now she was sure she was going to topple over.

"Yes, last night. You were so rude. You didn't come over and say hi. You didn't invite me to stay to dinner, and you didn't introduce me to the royal twins. I might get the impression you don't love me anymore."

There was, apparently, a Goddess, and Cassia was going to make sure she made some sort of sacrifice to her sometime soon. Weak kneed with relief, she managed to look appropriately apologetic; at least, she hoped she did. "I'm sorry. It was all a big surprise last night. I didn't know what to do."

Sable sighed. "I guess I could understand that." She grinned at Cassia, her anger forgotten. "You didn't come get me last night. I missed hanging out with you in our spot." She leaned forward, kissing Cassia soundly with the kiss that she was fairly certain turned her girlfriend's brain to mush.

Moriko came out of the barn hoping to sneak into the house and talk to Cassia without having to endure Nix asking her what was wrong like Selene. She stopped suddenly, seeing Cassia and Sable kissing, and felt like she had been kicked in the kidneys.

"I'm sorry," Cassia whispered once she could breathe again. Sable's kisses were very demanding things, which did wonderful things to her brain. "The dinner was really late." She felt horrible lying, but it seemed the easiest way out. "I have to go help Nix, but I'll see you later," she promised.

"You better. A girl could start to think you weren't interested in her. I'll meet you at our swimming hole later." She turned and frowned. "Is your servant sick or something, she doesn't look too good?"

"What?" Cassia looked over Sable's shoulder, freezing as she spotted Moriko.

Sable frowned. "I think you should look into getting less willful servants. My mom says the quieter they are the better."

The other teen mumbled something that might have been agreement, her eyes locked with Moriko's. She didn't know what to do, what to say, to wipe away the awful expression on the other girl's face. This was worse than facing Sable.

"I'll see you later, Sable," she managed to say, amazed at how level her voice sounded. She struggled with a smile to the other girl, tearing her eyes from the expression on Moriko's face.

Moriko couldn't hide the expression on her face. Finally, she tore her eyes from the scene and fled back into the safety of the barn, her eyes watering and burning from holding her tears at bay.

Unthinking, she rushed to Rugor's pen. Her forearm scraped against the rough wood of the gate as she blindly reached for it, shoving it open. All she wanted was to be away from her and into the safety of the woods.

Rugor hooted in joy as his gate opened. Fingers wrapped around the simple bridle, and automatically, she outfitted the Alcen for a ride. Her hands grabbed the thick fur of his neck and she swung on to his back. The next thing she knew, she was in the middle of thick trees, Rugor's sides heaving under her legs. She blinked, having no conscious thought of how she got here.


Crow came up the path to Runt's house, whistling happily. She'd had a most pleasant evening that had turned into a most pleasant morning. She easily heard the thundering hooves, and was well out of the way of the Alcen that came tearing down the road. Recognizing Moriko, she rolled her eyes.

ÊShe didn't once envy these youngsters and their boiling emotional states. She continued up the road, not even bothering to give chase, knowing it to be pointless to chase after a wildly running Alcen.

A minute later, she passed a snotty Sable, who glared at her as they passed. Finally reaching the Runt's house, she saw Cassia's solitary figure standing in front of the house.

The youngster was staring down the road, a lost look on her face. She blinked, suddenly seeming to realize that Crow was there. "Crow..." She paused, looking at her in confusion. "I..." She didn't know what to say.

Crow sighed and clapped a thick hand to the girl's shoulder. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked softly.

Cassia looked like she was going to cry. "It's all a mess." She didn't know where to start.

"Okay, then." She tugged Cassia's arm and led her behind the barn. There was a gentle slope and a few rocks then it opened into a lightly wooded plain before hitting the neighbor's house. "I figure you don't want to talk to your moms about this, so let's sit a spell and maybe the world will make sense."

"I don't think it's ever going to make sense again." The dark-haired girl wrapped her arms around herself, the tears getting harder to avoid, and she sniffled. She let herself be pulled down onto one of the sun-warmed rocks and leaned against her aunt as she had when she was a little girl. "Everything is messed up."

Crow rolled her eyes, knowing the cloth that protected her light sensitive eyes covered them. "Well, the sky seems up and the ground seems down, so not everything is messed up," she joked.

That earned the older woman a sniffly, shaky, laugh. "But everything else is. My parents don't like my girlfriend, who I thought I wanted to always be with. But then I kissed Moriko, and I like her too, but differently than Sable. Now I don't know who I like more, but it's all the twins' fault." The words all sort of tumbled out.

Crow said nothing. She looked at Cassia for a second then at the ground as she tried to make sense of the young woman's rambling sentence.

"Do you think I'm horrible," Cassia asked, not sure she could bear it if Crow did, "for kissing her?"

Crow blew out a breath then asked, "Did you want to kiss her?"

The teen considered the question for a minute then slowly nodded her head against her aunt's shoulder.

"Ah, ankle biter, no, I don't think you're horrible." She gave her niece a hug. "But you can't blame this on the twins. They may be a horrible influence on the outside world, but they didn't make you do anything."

"I know," Cassia sighed. "It's easier to blame them, though."

She loosened the hug but didn't let go completely. "Now, if I'm understanding everything, you're in love with Moriko and Sable. And don't think I didn't notice how you were drooling over that southern Royal guard at dinner, so that brings the total to three."

The younger woman's face started to turn red. "I wasn't drooling over her," she protested weakly.

Crow wasn't really worried about Valdis, the young guard had more than half the population swooning around the place. And while the young woman enjoyed flirting, she seemed to know with whom to have her fun with and whom to avoid.

"Oh, yes you were, you and most of the other young ones running around," Crow teased. "And if I was younger, I'd probably be drooling myself. However, not to break your heart, I think she's chasing Kealey's skirt." She grinned, thinking about how Kelsy and Valla were about ready to kill the young woman for even looking at their daughter.

Jokes aside, she knew that Cassia was in a whole lot of emotional pain. Crow pondered what to say. "Well, Runt Jr., what you and Moriko did to Sable was kind of crappy. I wish I could coat the truth in honey, but you can't blame yourself completely. Moriko knew you had a girlfriend, and she still allowed herself to be kissed. I assume she even did some kissing of her own?"

Mutely, Cassia nodded in agreement. There had been a lot of kissing, very enjoyable kissing. "I'm the one that went after her, though."

"Well, I think what you need to figure out is if you're shedding a few wild hairs before you make a life forever with Sable, or if maybe Sable isn't the one for you? I hate to bring up a dead horse and beat it a few more times, but, Cassia, you are still young, life is just opening up before you. Maybe you should see where it leads you before settling down."

"I shouldn't be kissing other people if I love Sable, should I?" Cassia sighed and closed her eyes. "I really thought I loved her. I don't want to hurt her.ä

Crow smiled sadly. "Love is messy and it hurts. Sometimes a little hurt now prevents a big hurt down the road."

The teen sighed and finally pulled away from her aunt. "That doesn't make it any easier right now." Idly, she kicked at a small pebble with her foot, watching it tumble away from where they sat. "What should I do?"

Crow frowned, wishing she could make everything better. "What do you want to do?"

Cassia smiled hopefully. "Go away?" That way she wouldn't hurt anybody.

Crow laughed. "When did running away ever help anything?"

"Why do you have to always be right?" the younger girl mock pouted. "I should talk to Sable. Then I should talk to Moriko...if I can find her."

Crow got up off the rock she was sitting on and ruffled the young woman's hair. "No. What you need to do is sit down and figure out what you want. If you're not happy with yourself and your life, well, ankle biter, that's not something you're going to find or get out of another woman. It's something you need to find for yourself."

"There you go, being right again," the teen grumbled, getting up off the rock herself. "Tell my moms I'll be back later? I have to go take care of a few things."


"Hey!" Cassia's mood instantly improved as she spotted two familiar figures walking down the road towards her. She had been on her way to Sable's, but that could wait at least a little while. "What are you two doing?" she asked the twins, nodding to the older woman who was trailing along behind them, one of the guards, she thought.

Caron perked up, "Hey, Cassia."

Caitlin just smiled and waved.

"Hey, we're going to go to this swimming hole the girl at the Inn told us about." Hyper, Caron bounded over to Cassia, nearly tackling the girl.

"Ah!" Cassia yelped in surprise as she got a handful of twin. Grinning, she gave her a hug back. "Good to see you too, Caron. Which swimming hole..?" Cassia really, really, didn't want to go talk with Sable.

"The one on the far side of the village, um, past the stonecutter's house, I think she said." Caron looked to her twin for confirmation.

Caitlin nodded, "Yep. Hey, Cassia. You fall off anymore roofs last night?"

The northerner firmly told herself she wasn't going to blush, but she did anyway. "No. I didn't fall off anymore roofs." She'd done something far more enjoyable. Turning, she started to walk along with both twins. She could talk with Sable later, and the Goddess only knew where Moriko had gone to.

Caitlin laughed at the blush. "So what did you end up doing? You ever find Moriko, or is she still mad at you?"

Caron made a face at the guard watching them. "Khalil, we're fine, you don't need to follow us everywhere."

The guard sighed. "Princess, since Penka has apparently gotten caught up in something and lost track of time, I'd feel better if I watched over you." The guard knew her duty, and Penka would have her hide.

Although she was somewhat distressed that Penka hadn't shown up for her shift, she figured the woman was allowed a mistake, since it was the first one the older guard could think of the woman having made.

It still amused Cassia to know that the twins were followed around all the time by guards. She wasn't sure if it was for their protection or to protect others from them. "I found Moriko," she answered, simply, not wanting to say too much about the evening.

"That's good. Cassia, I don't think she was mad, more like scared you were hurt. I would have acted the same, but I'm use to it," Caitlin said quietly to Cassia. She liked Moriko, the quiet girl something she wasn't use to, and it was refreshing.

"We kissed," Cassia couldn't help but whisper back, even though she'd just promised herself that she wouldn't say anything about it.

Caron stumbled then caught herself. "Um, what?" she whispered back.

Caitlin looked at the two in front of her suspiciously.

"We danced and then I kissed her," the northerner whispered back.

"Wow. Was it nice?" She looked over her shoulder at her twin then quickly asked. "What's it like, to kiss someone?" Caron hadn't had the chance. Although she'd had various crushes on some of her tutors, they knew better than to kiss the princess.

Cassia tripped over her own feet in surprise at that. She'd assumed that both twins were more experienced than she was. "It's really nice," she gave the other girl a quick grin. "I can't explain it, but your stomach gets all filled with flutters and the good kisses take away your breath."

Caron grinned dreamily, "Sounds nice. Caitlin was sneaking out to see one of the guards in training, but she won't speak about what happened and what they did. Penka found out and had the girl transferred, she died in a battle. I think they both feel angry and blame each other. That's why she was telling you not to have regrets." Caron huffed a little. "But nobody will even let me do anything to have any regrets. Either Caitlin, or my mother, or the guards are always watching. Caitlin is only a minute older. I don't know why that makes her think I'm the baby."

The other teen gave her a friendly bump with her shoulder. "Tell you what, I'll race you to the swimming hole, and then tonight we can see about finding somebody you can kiss."

"Okay, but it has to be somebody cute." She took a little hop step then took off running.

"Last one there has to do whatever the others want tonight!" Cassia yelled back to Caitlin as she took off in a sprint as well, bursting past a couple of adults and down the last stretch of street. Past the stonecutters house was a sharp left, then down a simple dirt path towards the river.

Caitlin rolled her eyes, but took off running. The guard grumbled, but easily followed the younger women.

From the shadow of a barn, dark eyes watched everything. The face was hidden completely in darkness then momentarily white teeth were exposed in an evil grin.


A shaggy snout wormed its way under Moriko's arm then Rugor flipped his head up to catch the crying young woman's attention.

Moriko snorted and wiped her eyes, "Sorry there, boy. Did you want attention?"

The Alcen hooted and she scratched his shaggy head.

She was feeling better out here in the woods, now that she had a good cry. Everything that had happened shouldn't have shocked her. It wasn't like she hadn't known about Sable.

She wiped her face again and stood up. Rugor hooted and tried to butt his head into her side. She just pushed him away, avoiding the horns.

Moriko felt disjointed inside, her heart and head hurt and weren't talking logically to one another. Her heart was trying to convince her that all her youthful hopes and wishes were created around one kiss of Cassia's lips. Her head was telling her that all those hopes and wishes were silly and not likely.

She started to walk along the game trail, Rugor following at her heels, nipping at leaves and plants, constantly eating.

This part of the island was as far away from the northern civilization as you could get and still be on the island. The trees were thick and untouched, and few people came here for any other reason than to hunt or forage for edible berries or herbs.

Her morose thoughts came to a halt as the smell of smoke invaded her nose. She sniffed and slowly turned in a circle, afraid of a forest fire. She moved in the direction of the smoke, hoping to pinpoint where it was so she could go back and bring help.

The sound of laughter drifted through the forest as shadows moved in front of the small fire that was as carefully shielded from view as possible. There was a small group of women crouched around it, passing mugs back and forth to one another, and sharing small pieces of meat.

Moriko frowned when she didn't recognize any of them, not that she knew everybody in the north. But these women had short swords and armor, something like Valdis and the other guards from the south were wearing.

"How much longer do we have to sit out here?" one groused, wiping her lips with the back of her hand.

"Until we're told otherwise," another answered, tearing a piece of meat off the bone of a rabbit with her teeth and a knife.

A figure appeared, stepping out of shadows, the features blurred, but Moriko felt scared just looking at it.

The four women around the fire stopped speaking immediately as they spotted the figure, each scrambling to go to their knees as quickly as they could.

"Listen up. I have orders from your employer. The merchants want you to kidnap the northern Princess and the twins from the south. Nothing is to happen to the northern Princess. However, treat the twins whatever way seems best," the figure barked out.

There was a bit of snickering at that, as they had a few ideas of what they could do to the twins. The one with the dagger risked raising her eyes to the shadowy figure. "What about our payment? We don't mind coming this far north, but we haven't seen a single gold coin yet."

"After that twit frees Cassia, you all run away. Meet back here for payment. It will be more than you can imagine," the woman said with a sneer.

The one with the knife grunted in pleasure, imagining a lot of gold. "We'll take care of it immediately. The northerner won't have a single pretty little hair harmed."

"Good. They're currently on their way to a swimming hole on the far end of town." The woman crouched down to draw a map in the dirt.

The four women crowded closer to see the map, studying it with the casual skill of those used to skulking through shadows to accomplish their missions. "We'll get them all together." That would work just perfectly.

Moriko felt her stomach clench in fear. Something bad was going to happen to Cassia, and she needed to get back to town. Carefully, she backed away from the sight before her.

"Now what do we have here?" A rough southern voice asked from just in back of Moriko. "Looks like a little spy to me." Grabbing the youngster's shoulder, she spun Moriko around, grinning nastily. The woman was dressed like the others, in leather armor with a sword at her hip, and a nasty scar down the side of her face.

Moriko tried to shake the hand off. "Let go of me," she growled out, her fear coming out as anger.

"Where did you come from, little mouse?" one of the women from the campsite called as the four mercenaries started to advance towards Moriko, hands on swords.

Ê"Oh, I don't think I'll be letting go of you anytime soon," the one holding onto her grinned an unpleasant expression.

Moirko whistled shrilly, and within a second, Rugor charged through the trees, hooting loudly. Shaking his head, his horns slashed at the woman holding Moriko.

With a startled curse, she let go, barely managing to avoid getting gored by the angry Alcen's horns. "Get her, you fools! She can't get back to warn them!"

Moriko took off running, while Rugor hooted and slashed with his horns, protecting his mistress' escape, his horns cutting flesh, drawing blood.

"Get that beast down and get that girl!" the shadow woman shouted before vanishing.

One of the women drew a bow and released an arrow. Rugor gave a shrill scream of pain then thrashed around wildly in pain.

The others raced around the thrashing animal, grimly giving chase through the trees after Moriko. They knew what would happen to them if they failed. The shadowy shape would make sure they regretted their failure for a long time before allowing them to die.

Moriko paused and looked back, for a moment warring with stopping or continuing.

An arrow whizzed by her ear and she started running again, sending a quick prayer to the Moon Goddess to watch over Rugor. As she ran through the trees, more and more arrows rained down around her.

Huffing for breath, one skimmed so close to her head that it cut a thin line across the flesh of her cheek. Wincing, she turned away from it only to have all the air forced out of her lungs as an arrow buried itself in her flesh, feeling like an Alcen had kicked to her chest. And for a moment, she sucked for breath as her eyes trailed down the red bloom on her chest. Her arms wind milled then she fell down the side of the small hill, and everything went black.

"Did I get her?" a raspy voice asked.

"Good shot," one of the women complimented the other, standing at the steep hillside where the body had toppled down. "Looks like a clean kill." She wasn't wasting time going down there then having to scramble back up.

"Let's go, we have to catch them while they are still all together," the first woman from the campfire called out, pausing to peer down the slope at the still body. "She won't cause us any trouble."

The rest of the women hastily packed up their camp, then walked around the dead, bleeding corpse of the Alcen, and headed to the river.


Cupping her hands together, Cassia showered the nearest twin with water. Laughing, she dove sideways, trying to get out of the way of any retaliation from either sibling. The worry that she'd been carrying with her earlier was still there, but she was ignoring it for now and enjoying the sunny day.

"That's for making me fall off the roof last night."

Caitlin sputtered then swam away from the taller girl. "I didn't make you do anything," she gasped out, wiping the water out of her eyes.

"You fought with me," Cassia laughed, moving deeper into the water until her feet didn't touch the bottom.

Caron yelled out a warning shout as she swung out over the small cove of water on a piece of braided rope that had been tied to a tree limb. She lost her nerve at the last moment and didn't let go, and swung back into the trees. Her sister's laughter and giggled shout of "Chicken" made her try one more time, this time letting go and falling into the water.

Caitlin wiped water out of her face one more time and looked over at Cassia. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize you and Moriko were lusting after one another. She's cute, reminds me of..." she trailed off before finding her words again. "Um, she's just the type of woman I like. Nothing personal..."

Caron's head burst out of the water and she gasped for breath, "I don't think I like that."

The splash caused the northerner to sputter this time, as she rode out the waves that rippled out from Caron's cannonball. Shaking her head, Cassia swam closer to the southerner. "It's all right. Sorry I lost it. I shouldn't have been so angry."

The guard chuckled at the antics in the water and went back to watching the trees. The north was nice and peaceful, and she wondered, when she retired, if she could move up. As far as she could tell, there were no petty warlords stirring up trouble and small land wars.

"Truce?" Cassia swam until she could touch the bottom and stuck out her hand to Caitlin.

Caitlin stared at the hand for a second then grinned, "Okay, truce." She reached out and shook Cassia's wet hand.

"Good. Now I better get going. I need to talk to Sable, even if I really don't want to." The water wasn't that warm either, and she didn't feel like spending a lot of time in it if the day wasn't hot enough.

Swimming towards the bank, she paused on the edge to turn back towards the two southerners. "If you see Moriko, will you tell her I'm sorry? I'll find her after I talk with Sable."


ÊCaron splashed her sister then quickly swam away. "Okay," She shouted.

The guard nodded her head respectfully at the northern Princess then turned to give the girl some privacy as she got out of the water.

Cassia smiled back at the southern guard, whose name she couldn't remember, and started to get up out of the water.

The arrow came out of nowhere.

One second the guard was standing there, the next an arrow had sprouted out of her throat, blood cascading from the fatal wound, and the southerner collapsed to the ground. It was so sudden and unexpected; Cassia froze, staring down at the dying woman with wide eyes.

Women, ragged and dirty, emerged from the trees, and most of them had a dark, hungry look in their eyes.

Caron gave a squawk of surprise and started to swim for the river.

"Hey, girl," one of them said with a nasty sneer, emerging from a bush right next to Cassia.

She turned and managed two steps back into the river before she was grabbed from behind. "Let go of me!" she yelled, squirming in the iron tight grip as she was hauled back to the bank.

"I wouldn't if I were you!" a voice shouted. "I'll have my archers use you for target practice. The only one I have to keep in one pristine piece is this northern lovely."

An arrow hit the water next to her, and Caron quickly rethought her options. Her gray eyes searched for her twin, unsure what to do.

Caitlin swam to shore and got out of the water, her faith fully on her mother, Penka, and Valdis to find them.

Cassia managed to scratch the arm of the one who was holding her, which aimed a curse at her. "Bag them," the one who'd been yelling demanded. The next thing Cassia knew, a rough burlap sack had been drawn over her head and her arms tied behind her with rough hemp rope.

Caitlin was given the same treatment by the women waiting for her on the bank. "Be smart, do what your sister did. Would be a shame to have to kill her because you did something stupid," the leader of the little group called to Caron.

Caron lashed out with a foot as she was roughly handled, getting her backhanded by a meaty fist. She cried out in pain. Other than her sisters, no one had actually hit her before.

"Caron, stop it," Caitlin whispered.

"Let's go." The mercenaries herded the girls down the bank, shoving them when they didn't move fast enough for their liking. Within minutes, the only thing left was the body of the now dead guard.


Selene waited until after the drinks were poured before talking to the woman seated across from her. "I hope that you have enjoyed your visit north so far." They were back in the Inn after having toured the island for the majority of the morning. "I know we aren't as grand as some of the southern cities, but we will be."

Keshet smiled, taking the drink, "It's fine, Selene. Grand just is a nice word for drafty, trust me."

On the southern Queen's left, the Priestess from the Temple of Love just sniffed at the Queen's comment. Keshet rolled her eyes, but said nothing. "Actually, I think I'm going to thank the royal advisor this was actually a nice trip."

The northerner shrugged, "Maybe, although it might be nice to have a larger house to host people in." That was something that neither she nor Nix had thought of. "How are your daughters enjoying it so far?"

The Priestess made another rude noise at the mention of the twins.

Selene took a sip of the drink in front of her, working hard at ignoring the priestess, which she'd been doing all day. The other woman rubbed her entirely the wrong way.

"Oh, they've loved it, they really like Cassia. You know, I haven't had to apologize once for their behavior." She sighed in contentment, "That's been nice."

Valdis emerged from the upstairs dressed in her red and black tunic and trousers. Her hair was messy and she gave a jaw splitting yawn. Wraith followed at her heels, his stumpy tail wagging.

The Priestess perked up a bit at seeing the warrior.

"We are all a little rough around the edges, something to do with the cold winters, I think." Selene smiled, ignoring another distasteful expression on the priestess' face. Honestly, why had the woman come along with them if she was going to find everything lacking? Just to needle the woman, Selene leaned forwards.

"Thank you for the suggestions on our temple to the Moon Goddess." She nodded in welcome to the southern guard, glad that Cassia wasn't around to lust after her.

Keshet smirked behind her glass and rolled her eyes. "You know, um..." She paused as she drew a blank on the priestess' name. "The Priestess of Death at least took some interest in learning about the Priestess of the Moon Goddess."

When the priestess ignored her, having only the attention span for Valdis, she looked over at Selene, fighting off a laugh. "It was no problem. In the big scheme of things, we are all sisters, so why should I not help. I actually have never pledged my loyalty to any of the gods."

That got the priestess' attention.

The northern queen shifted over on the wooden bench to make room for Valdis as the guard joined them at the table. "Do you worship all of them, then? Or none?" Selene could barely remember a time when she hadn't believed; the days before the Goddess had come to her were from a different lifetime.

Valdis nodded her thanks and sat down, ignoring the priestess' leering gaze.

"Oh, politically I worship them all. Personally, after Morgan died, I find it hard to have faith in any of them," Keshet said with a small, sad smile.

As was becoming a regular thing, Selene was impressed with the other woman's candor in speaking about her opinions. "Regardless, the suggestions you gave Willow could shave off years of construction time for the temple."

The priestess, however, looked like she had bitten into a lemon. "How could you say such a thing? The Goddess of Love..."

She was cut off by Valdis' hand gripping her arm painfully. "You forget yourself. She is the Queen and can say anything she likes. Maybe you should go pray to your Goddess or something."

The woman looked angry for a second then fearful as the grip got stronger. After a moment, she got up and left the table.

Selene didn't even try to hide her relief as the priestess left. Oddly enough, of all the priestesses that had accompanied Keshet northwards, the Priestess of Death had been the nicest.

Valdis sighed in relief, and looked at Keshet reproachfully.

Keshet chuckled. "Yes, yes, I need to be more careful what I say around certain people."

The northerner hid a smile by taking a sip of her drink. She started to ask a question about how many different Gods and Goddesses were actually worshiped in the south, when the door to the Inn slammed open. Sable stood in the open doorway, the teen looking around almost frantically. When she spotted the three women at the table, she practically ran towards them, dodging past one of Keshet's other guards.

Her mothers followed shortly after, moving at a slower pace.

"This doesn't look good," Selene whispered, standing up as the girl reached the table.

Valdis sighed and rubbed the sleep from her eyes then stood, putting herself in front of the northern and southern Queens.

"Selene!" the young woman shouted. "I, well, I, there has been..." She trailed off and looked to her mothers. The two women nodded encouragingly.

The northern queen stepped up next to Valdis. Whatever was going on, she was pretty sure she wasn't going to enjoy it. "What is it, Sable?" She glanced towards the teen's mothers, then back to her.

"I was on my way to meet Cassia at our swimming hole when, well, she and the Royal southern Princesses were swimming, well, they weren't swimming..." She looked to her mothers.

Cressida broke in. "Just tell the Queen what you told us."

Sable just blinked confused at her mother then looked back at Selene. "There were these rough looking women; they were taking all of them away."

Selene frowned, asking, "Taking who away?" even as her stomach clenched in sudden fear.

Sable blinked and thought for a second, "Them, the, er, Princesses."

"Impossible," Keshet shouted, standing up. "Penka is guarding the twins this morning, she is the best."

Selene paled at that. "Where is the swimming hole?" Maybe the younger girl had misunderstood what she saw. She prayed that was what had happened.

"Actually," Eira's oily voice came. "I didn't see Penka on guard duty this morning."

"What?" came the surprised voices of both Valdis and Keshet.

The woman broke away from the shadows in the Inn. "I saw Khalil on duty."

"There's no way, she had night duty. She wouldn't have done a double shift, unless..." Valdis trailed off.

Eira picked up the thought, "Penka didn't show up for her shift."

Valdis was torn, to look for the Princesses or to look for her mother. Eira stood there, challenging her, her black eyes fathomless. "I will go with Sable and a few guards to check it out. Eira, you look for my...look for Penka."

"Valla!" Selene yelled to get the innkeeper's attention. "Please, find Nix, tell her that Cassia's missing and that we're going to the swimming hole she likes, to try and find her." Ignoring Sable's mothers, she turned back to the girl. "Take us there now," she commanded.

"Selene. Give us a minute to get ready. If we go like this and there is trouble, more could be hurt," Valdis said quietly.

It took a lot, but the northern queen nodded, not trusting her voice. "Hurry," she answered, meeting the anguished look on Keshet's face. "I'm sure they are fine. They have to be."


Moriko stumbled out of the trees into the town. She had broken the arrow shaft off, but it was still in her right below her collarbone, so close that if she moved her arm, she could hear the arrowhead grate against the bone.

Blood still sluggishly oozed out of the wound, and she was feeling lightheaded. There was vomit on her shoes, her first reaction to seeing Rugor's corpse shot full of arrows and cut open. The second had been tears.

The only thing keeping her going was knowing that Cassia, Caron, and Caitlin's lives were depending on her.

It was quiet, and as she looked around, all the houses were blurry. She spun around in a small circle, unsure of where to go. Her eyes caught the sight of the blurry Inn sign and she staggered over to it, missing the door and leaning heavily against the wall, nearly sliding over.

There were voices mumbling. "Eira, I'm glad you told us about Cassia and that servant."

"It is in my best interests that your house and the house of the north make a match," came the same cold voice she had heard at the southern bandit camp.

"This plan is even better, this way Sable is a hero. There's no way they'll ask her to do those tasks now, and Cassia will be so star struck by her girlfriend the hero she'll forget about anybody else."

Moriko nearly vomited again. Rugor had died for this. So politics could be played.

Tears sprung up in her eyes and she pushed off from the rough wooden logs of the Inn. She wanted to be far from here. Where life was simple and there was no love and politics, nothing to confuse the heart and the head.

She staggered a few more feet before she dropped to her knees.

Her vision was dimming, and croaked out for help.

"This way, Willow, there's a woman who's on the edge of life and death, I can feel it. She will either need you to help her live or me to help comfort her as she passes over." The voice was soft, almost musical.

"There she is." Gentle hands touched Moriko's side. "Moriko, child, we are here. Can you hear me?" She pressed against the wound to stop the sluggish flow of blood.

"It's all right, child." The older priestess slid an arm under the teenager's shoulder. "Melody, can you help me bring her back to the temple?" she asked the Priestess of Death, who had come out with her.

"Of course," she answered as her smaller hands picked up the young woman's feet. "My, you do grow them solid up here, don't you?"

Despite the gravely injured woman that they were carrying, Willow smiled. "I think it is to survive the winters." Carefully, they carried the teen down the street towards the unfinished temple building, which was thankfully not that far away.

Novices helped the two carry the teen inside as soon as they spotted the two priestesses carrying Moriko towards the small building next to the temple. Carefully, they carried the injured teen into one of the small rooms and made her comfortable. Willow entered after them, frowning at the arrow shaft still in the girl's shoulder. "Moriko, this is going to hurt, I fear."

Melody, smiled at Willow. "She's passed out, so now would be a good time to remove it."

The older woman shook her head at herself. "So she is." With the help of two of the acolytes, they ripped open the girl's clothing to reveal the wound underneath. Willow winced at the ugly mess. Cautiously, she took up a dagger and began to cut away the skin to remove the shaft.

As she worked she prayed to the Goddess for the girl she worked on.


Keshet blew softly on her mug of tea, concerned, rightly so. Penka was still missing, her children were kidnapped, or worse; there was a lot to be worried about.

She watched the northern Queen through her eyelashes, the woman beyond pissed at being made to stay behind.

The map was a bit crudely drawn, but it worked. It was scribed on the back of a sheet of expensive Valium and laid out on the table of the smithy. On it was a sketch of the area and the surrounding land. Selene was staring down at it, arms crossed, and furious. "I can't believe she left me here," she growled, glancing up at the southern Queen.

Keshet smiled sadly, "I understand completely. Morgan left all the time to lead the troops. I was pissed and worried, and it didn't stop until she came home."

"She left me behind!" Selene growled, unhappy and worried. "Cassia is my child too." She sighed and unfolded her arms. "Valdis is good, right? I mean, she's your best?"

"Valdis is my second best. Penka is my best." She sighed sadly. "I'm worried, she's never disappeared before. Valdis will get them back."

"I hope Nix and she are safe. Please, Goddess, bring our children back safely," the northerner whispered, looking down at the map again.


Valdis crept through the trees, Wraith moving ahead of her, his nose to the forest floor.

Nix moved behind her, the large woman trying to get used to the awkward weight of the sword strapped across her back. Selene had demanded that she take at least a sword with her, although she was much more at ease with the hammer in her hand. "I hope she forgives me for making her stay behind," the large smith said quietly, pausing as Wraith decided which way the trail went.

Valdis frowned and looked over her shoulder, "She loves you, why would she not forgive you?"

"She looked pretty angry," the northerner rambled, running a hand over her hair. The nighttime looked bright to eyes that were still sensitive to the sunlight no matter how many years had passed since she'd been a slave in the mines.

The young warrior rolled her eyes. "Cook her a nice dinner tomorrow, pour on some romantic charm, she'll be fine, especially if we get your daughter back."

Vladis ducked under a tree limb and whispered. "Okay, can we have a little less talk and more sneaking?"

The northerner nodded and followed the southern guard.

Behind them, the rest of the southern guard moved through the trees, silent as ghosts.

Wraith paused then snorted. His stumpy tail wagged as he darted around a clearing trying to find the trail. He gave a small wuff then looked at his mistress.

Valdis went over to where he was standing and looked at the trail he had chosen. Crouching down, she examined the forest floor, "Looks like someone wasn't happy." She studied the track marks showing someone had been dragged.

"One of the twins or Cassia?" whispered Nix. So far they hadn't found any sign of violence against the girls, and she hoped it stayed that way. The dead guard they had found back at the river had showed how serious the abductors were. They'd sent Sable back to the village after that.

"I can't tell. I'm sorry." She motioned her warriors forward and stood. Wraith took off down the path.

The smith followed as they moved down the path, frowning when she realized where they were going. "There's a dock ahead for fishing boats." That could be bad. If they got off the island, it was going to get that much harder to find them.

Valdis nodded, and moved out, pushing everyone into a faster pace. All the trees looked the same to her, but she could smell water.

Ahead of them came the sound of voices, which sounded like either Caron or Cailtin arguing with someone. A second later, there was the sound of a fist hitting flesh and the voice stopped.

"If you or your sister makes noise again, I'll slit both your throats myself." a rough voice growled then gave the girl a shove towards the boat they were being loaded onto. The former occupants lay dead on the shore where they'd been ambushed.

Valdis could feel her blood heat in anticipation of the fight to come. Unconsciously, she gripped the pommel of her sword, her teeth bared in snarl. Wraith sensing his mistress' mood snarled as well, the fur on his spine standing up.

She growled as she was brought to a stop by Nix's meaty hand. "What?" she hissed at the smith.

The rest of the guards came to a stop wondering what to do.

"They might hurt the girls. We have to surprise them." Nix wasn't going to risk having Cassia hurt.

Valdis ripped her arm from the smith's grasp. "Good point," she said grudgingly.

"How about this..." Nix whispered as the guards leaned closer to hear.


The boat scared Cassia more than anything that had happened so far. If they were loaded onto it, they could be sailed up the river to the mountains or down it all the way to the sea.

Caron blinked, trying to get the blood out of her eyes, since her eyebrow had split under the blow.

Caitlin watched horrified as her twin was beat. "Caron, just stop," she whispered. She hadn't been enjoying the woman feeling her up, but she didn't need Caron to risk her life being a hero.

Caron groaned and tried to get her feet under her as one of the bandits grabbed her and lifted her roughly to her feet.

The hard voiced woman grabbed the southerner's chin, forcing her to look at her. She tapped the long, wicked knife that she held in her hand against the girl's cheek. "If you or your sister makes noise again, I'll slit both your throats myself." She smiled an unpleasant expression. "Understand me?"

Caron nodded, her face going white in fear.

"Good girl." She tapped the twin on the cheek one last time then looked past her towards the simple fishing boat. There were dozens of them that plied across the Winderling, and it would be hard to track. "Load them onboard,ä she ordered, stepping over the body of one of the previous owners.

Caitlin was working on getting the ropes loose around her wrist, but it was slow going.

"No...wait...my mothers will pay you whatever you want," Cassia babbled, scared out of her mind as the nearest mercenary reached to pick her up. "Please..." she begged, only to have the woman laugh at her.

The one with the dagger paused, turning towards the trail that they'd been following. "What is that?" she frowned, listening intently.

The other mercenaries went still, drawing weapons if they had them. Faintly at first, then growing closer, they could hear singing. Two forms staggered up the path, leaning heavily on one another, singing loudly and quite drunk. They were dressed like fisherwomen, simple warm work clothes and a rain slicker.

A quick gesture had two of the mercenaries drag the bodies aside, and hastily hide them. Two of the others slid into the shadows of the trees, hiding their weapons to avoid any light glinting off the bared steel.

"Oh, hey," one of the women hiccupped, "looky see, we got visitors. Perhaps they'd like a drink."

She staggered away from her companion, nearly dropping the large earthen jug she was holding.

"Hi, ladies," the leader of the mercenaries stepped forward smiling in what she hoped was a friendly manner. Behind her, the rest of the mercenaries stepped behind the girls, bared steel pressing up against their backs to keep them quiet.

"You-you-you, you want some of this, just got it in from the miners up north." The woman belched something toxic and waved the jug under the bandit's nose.

The southerner winced at the foul smell, eyes watering, and flinched back from the offered jug, whatever was in it smelling like piss. "Ugh, that smells like horse piss!"

The woman swayed for a moment then blinked at the jug, and bringing it to her nose, she sniffed. "Does not!" she waved it back at the bandit, smacking her hard in the head. "Here, take another whiff."

The mercenary swore at the hit, seeing stars for a second. That drunk sure could hit hard.

Valdis and Wraith emerged soundlessly from the water, staring hard at the women's, who held the three Princesses, backs. Silently she drew her sword from its scabbard.

In the shadows, the mercenaries under the trees waited for the signal to attack, oblivious to the other southern guards and Nix, who ever so quietly moved through the trees towards them.

Near the two drunks, the mercenary leader was losing her patience. She shoved the mug away from her face angrily. "Get out of here, both of you."

"Hey, Fox, I don't think they like your sister's drink making ability," the drunk said to the other one.

"Wha? Don't like my sister's alcohol. That's rude."

The woman fell back into the other only to be pushed forward. One second she was a stumbling drunk, the next she was a calculating warrior. The jug came crashing down on the woman's head, shattering both.

The other drunk stood up straight and revealed a short sword hidden under her robe.

Chaos erupted in the clearing near the boat launch. As soon as the leader went down under the hit to her head, the mercenaries hiding under the tree fell. One took a wicked stab from a short sword in the back from a southern guard she never knew was there. The other crumpled to the ground from a single blow of Nix's hammer to the head.

Valdis nodded at the one that held a drooping sword point at Caron, and Wraith sprang silently, latching on to the woman's sword arm. The young warrior quickly grabbed another, pulling the sword away from Caitlin and slitting the woman's throat. Not even pausing, she turned on the woman holding Cassia.

It had all happened so quickly that the last standing mercenary was caught staring at Valdis, mouth open as she slit the throat of the one holding Caitlin. Desperately she backed towards the river, knife coming up to press against a crying Cassia's throat, "Stop! Come any closer and I'll kill her, I swear!"

Nix moved closer to Valdis, hammer in hand, dripping blood.

Valdis looked the woman in the eye and growled out. "If you kill her, you're dead. If you run, you're dead. So I think your best bet is to drop the knife." She smelled the air and grinned, "I can smell your fear. I can hear how your heart pounds." She practically licked her chops. This fight hadn't even come close to soothing her battle fever. "Please do something foolish."

Wraith circled, looking for an opening.

The woman's eyes were wide and wild as she desperately looked around for a way out. There was only the grim southern guard and the large northern smith. She saw death in all of their eyes. "Back away now! I'm getting on the boat and you're going to let me go, or I'll make sure she dies slowly!"

Valdis barked out a laugh. "Before you could finish a cut, I'd have your throat slit." But she gestured for the guards to step back.

Cassia met her mother's eyes, swallowing. "I'm sorry," she whispered, wishing she could apologize for all the problems, all the arguments they'd had.

Nix just smiled. "It's going to be okay, pumpkin." She said reassuringly.

"Yeah, everything's going to be just fine," the mercenary laughed, dragging Cassia back another step onto the wooden dock. "We're going to go now, and if you're lucky, I'll let her go somewhere downstream."

Nix was familiar with the boats, and she waited for that moment. It was the step down into the small craft from the dock, the step down that was longer than it looked, taking many inexperienced woman by surprise.

As soon as the mercenary stepped down from the dock, Nix sprang the instant she saw the look of shock on the woman's face. In the darkness she could see perfectly, and avoided the mud and slick boards.

The knife had cut a shallow cut against the flesh of Cassia's throat then Nix was there, forcing the arm away, her own thick, calloused hands wrapping around the woman's throat.

She was so angry that someone would take advantage of her daughter, would hurt her and her wife like that. She was unaware of how she had easily already broken the woman's neck, she just kept squeezing.

"Mom..?" Cassia held onto one of her mother's arms. The mercenary was obviously dead, her feet dangling above the deck, head at an unnatural angle. "Mom, she's dead."

Nix blinked and slowly realized what she had done then felt bile creep up the back of her throat. "Oh Goddess," she whimpered.

Valdis snorted, slightly pissed off she hadn't gotten the kill. "The woman was a right bitch, and she threatened what was yours. Don't feel bad about that."

Cassia eagerly fell into her mother's arms after Nix had dropped the body to the deck, not at all ashamed to cry into her mother's shirt.

Nix nodded, but wrapped her arms around her daughter. "It's okay. I've got you. Let's get you home, your other mother is worried sick."

"You really need to thank that girlfriend of yours. If she hadn't seen the bandits take you, well, who knows when we would have figured out what was going on," Valdis said, motioning for her women to check the bodies. These were paid swords, if she'd ever seen them.

"Yeah, I never thought that mooncalf would do anything important. Guess she showed me," Nix grumbled a bit then helped Cassia to the shore.

"Sable saw them?" the northern teen was confused. She hadn't seen any sign of Sable at the swimming hole. "I'm sorry about the other guard," she told Valdis, stepping out onto dry land and flashing a shaky smile at the twins.

Valdis smiled. "Don't be sorry, just rejoice being alive." She turned to Nix. "Will you and a couple of the guards take them home? Caron looks like she needs a healer."


Valdis returned much later than the rest of the guards and Nix to the Inn. Her blood had been too hot to return to civilized company, and while she did not begrudge Nix the kill, she had wanted that scum's blood dripping off her sword. So instead of returning with the rest, she and Wraith had gone hunting in the woods. They had run through the trees until sweat poured off their bodies and their chests heaved for breath. Unfamiliar with the north, they had rested against a soft moss-covered bolder.

Only that to their surprise the bolder came to life. Uncurling, the Greenback had lifted up from its resting place on to its hind legs, and opening its huge maw, had roared, its black fangs shining in the moonlight. Its gray, slick fur camouflaged it among the other stones in the clearing, and the green on its back made it look like it had moss.

Valdis had grinned, feeling her father's gifts quicken inside her and her bloodlust grow. She drew her sword and Wraith snarled, exposing his own fangs.

A much happier and calm Valdis returned to the small northern town dragging the Greenback's corpse. The few women still up and about gave the woman looks of respect and a wide berth.

Bloody and worn, with slowly healing cuts and slashes on her body, she dropped the bear-like creature's body in front of the Inn and entered.

It was a serene scene that greeted her. Selene and Nix sat by the fire, Cassia's body curled up on Nix's lap. While Cassia wasn't small, the Smith was still easily able to hold her daughter. Keshet sat as well, drinking what looked to be tea. There was no sign of the twins.

At Valdis' questioning look, Keshet replied, ãThey're upstairs, asleep.ä

Valdis nodded then looked around hopefully for Kealey, but the Innkeeper's daughter was more than likely asleep.

Keshet cleared her throat and gave the young warrior a pointed look. ãDo I want to know what you've been doing since the rescue of the princesses?ä She sighed at the grin Valdis gave her and replied, ãI didn't think so.ä The southern Queen took a sip and spoke as Valdis made her way to the stairs. ãWe found your mother.ä

Valdis turned and made her way back to the Queens. ãWhere was she?ä

ãEira found her drunk and passed out in some woman's bed. The rather busty young woman claims Penka and she got drunk and went back to her place where, well...you know happened.ä Keshet and Valdis looked at each other for a second then busted up laughing.

Selene and Nix looked at each other confused, then at the laughing pair. Nix blurted out, ãYou two seem rather relaxed about this, considering that woman failed to do her job, and as a result wasn't there to save the princesses when she was really needed.ä


Keshet wiped her eyes and got her breathing under control. ãI understand your anger, I really do, Nix, but...ä She looked at Valdis and motioned for her to speak.

ãWell, that young woman is lying. One, my mother doesn't drink, and two, well...she doesn't like women, um, like that.ä The young warrior blushed slightly.

ãDoesn't like women?ä Selene muttered confused. ãThen who is your Muanya?ä

Valdis looked around then quietly said, ãTwenty years ago Vladlin, the God of War, took his best warrior to bed, that was my mother.ä

ãI don't see what that...ä Nix started to say, only to have Valdis cut her off. ãTwenty years ago, the best warrior was my mother.ä

ãOh,ä was all Nix said.

ãWhat happened to her hound Rage?ä

ãHe was found shut up in a storage shed where, apparently, he'd gone wandering. He's with your mother now.ä

Valdis nodded, ãThis woman that was with my mother is more than likely working with those bandits. You want me to have a talk with her?ä

Keshet thought for a moment. ãNo. Do it in the morning. Go clean up and get some rest.ä

Valdis bowed and started up the stairs to her room.

Keshet just stared into the fire and sipped her tea. She was worried that all this chaos was because of them, that they had brought all this danger to the north. The bandits were southern. Luckily so far, no one in the north was blaming them

The northern Queen smiled at the sight of their daughter sleeping on Nix's lap. "They look so peaceful when they're sleeping, then they wake up." She looked up across at the southerner. "You look like a woman who is worried."

The dark woman blew out a breath. "That's because I am. Those women were southerners, and I'm worried how that reflects on me and my people."

Shaking her head, Selene slowly slipped out from under Cassia's feet and went to get them some tea. "Valdis said they were hired swords. That means anyone could have gotten them." Offering Keshet her cup, Selene continued, "Even a northerner. We aren't very experienced with using swords." She gestured towards the sword that hung off Nix's chair, grinning as she realized her wife was on the edge of falling asleep in her chair.

Nix snored then her head jerked up, her eyes blinking, and she looked at her wife. "Wha, hummm, I think it's time to put this day behind us." She yawned wide.

Keshet smiled. "I think you're blessed to have avoided knowing the sword for so long, but I'm afraid we may have brought change upon you."

"Everything changes," Selene answered a touch sadly, as she watched Cassia yawn and get up also, sleepily rubbing her eyes.

With a muttered g'night, the teen stumbled off, a bandage on the cut at her throat as a reminder of the day.

"For now, let's just be grateful both of our families are safe." She slid an arm around Nix's waist as they headed out of the Inn. "Goodnight, Keshet."

"Goodnight," the southern Queen said, still staring into the fire.


Nix wrapped her arm around her wife and buried her nose in her hair, enjoying the clean smell. Her breathing hitched for a second and she almost started to cry.

Immediately, Selene turned and wrapped her arms around the taller woman. "She's safe, love, she's safe. You brought her back," she whispered, rubbing her arms across the still strong back of her wife.

"I know, but I..." She looked at her hands and felt sickened. "I-I, I killed a woman tonight. I've never, but she held a sword to our daughter's throat..." The smith did finally succumb to the tears blocking her throat, and she cried softly, her face hidden in her wife's hair.

The other woman closed her eyes in pain. She'd known what Nix had done, and was ashamed to say she didn't feel sorry for the dead women who'd taken their daughter and the southern twins. "You did what you had to." Selene tightened her hold on the larger woman, standing outside of the Inn. "They would have killed Cassia."

"I know. I've never...all my life my great stupid hands have created, and now they've done the one act the men in the mines said they were meant for. You know, they said it was a pity I wasn't a man, 'cause my great mitts were meant for war."

The smaller woman pulled back at that, freeing her hands to gently cup her face. "Nix, you are the gentlest person I know. You would never hurt someone unless there was no other way. I'm sorry you had to kill a woman, but I'd rather it was her than you or Cassia."

Nix didn't say anything but nodded her head. She cleared her throat and pulled back to wipe her eyes. "My head tells me that, but my heart feels bruised about it." She kissed her wife soundly. "I love you, don't ever forget that."

Selene smiled, eyes shining in the moonlight. "I know. I love you too." Tugging the larger woman's arm, she pulled Nix towards their house. "Come on, hero, let's go home."


Keshet forced a smile and waved at the northerners. It had been for the most part a good trip. However, with the mysterious death of the woman who had been with Penka, and Penka's own shame over what had happened, it was time to go.

She could see the wheels of despair churning in her captain's head. She couldn't risk being in a foreign territory with her Capitan's attention elsewhere. Valdis, while good, just didn't have the experience her mother did.

She smiled as the twins teamed up against Cassia and hugged the girl from both sides. They were still thick as thieves; however, the little trio was made tense by Cassia's new intensity in her girlfriend.

There was talk of a royal wedding soon in the future. So, thankful for Sable's help in finding their girl, the northern Royal couple was going to wave the tasks. This left an unsettling feeling in Keshet's gut. Sable's mothers looked all too comfortably happy with themselves.

The only one who seemed unhappy was the shy quiet girl whom Keshet had met at that first diner at Selene's house. She had heard the girl had been attacked by the same women who had kidnapped the Princesses. Unfortunately, the girl's attack and been drowned out by the attack on Cassia and the twins. Keshet understood that was the way of things, but now the girl only seemed to keep a brooding company with her pet hawk.

She waved at Selene. ãSend us a Royal message and we'll be here for the wedding."

"I wish neither of you had to go," Cassia mumbled, hugging the twins tight in return. "Promise to come visit again?" She'd already asked them to stay for the wedding, even though there was no love lost between the twins and Sable.

Caron grinned. "Of course, we can't wait to see you make the worst decision of your life," she teased.

Caitlin rolled her eyes. Caron could come if she wanted, but she was two-seconds away from throttling that simpering idiot. At least Moriko had been fun, quiet and shy, but fun.

Ê"Hey, Caron, why don't we dunk Cassia in the mud one more time, just so she doesn't miss us too much," Caitlin said with an evil look in her eye.

"No," Sable cut in, ending their fun. "I hate it when Cassia gets all muddy."

The twins sported similar frowns.

Cassia hid a sigh also, and reminded herself again that Sable had helped save her. Instead, she forced a smile and gave the two one last hug. "Stay safe, and I'll see you both again soon."

"'Kay. According to mom, we'll be back for the wedding," Caron called out. Both twins ran to their horses.

Keshet laughed as Valdis tried to free herself from various admirers, the young warrior slowly making her way to the traveling party.

The young woman winked at Cassia as she strode by. "Take care, Princess."

As usual, Cassia blushed and mumbled something in return to Valdis as the warrior strode past her.

Valdis sighed in disappointment. There was no Kealey. True, she hadn't made the best impression on the woman, but she had hoped that she was slowly wearing her down with her charms. She swung up into the saddle, surveying the crowd. The ferry and the river were behind them, and the mountains lay in front of them. "Move out!" she shouted.

Along with her mothers, Cassia waved in farewell to the southerners as they headed away from the ferry dock. She'd hoped that Moriko would be here as well, but as had happened ever since the kidnapping, Moriko had avoided her. Even while she'd been recovering, Moriko had refused to let Cassia visit her.

"Be well, Keshet, Queen of the South!" Selene yelled smiling as a reply floated back on the late autumn wind.

"Be well, Selene, Queen of the North!"


Moriko was packing what few things she had. It was early in the morning, and the sky was still gray pre-dawn. She didn't want to meet up with Crow or Cassia. Crow would try and stop her, and drag her home to her mothers. Cassia, just the thought of Cassia made her heart ache and piss her off at the same time. Absently, she patted Rose's head, the female Alcen seeming sad with the death of her stable mate Rugor.


ãI know, girl,ä she whispered. ãI miss him too.ä She was tired of being told she was irrational to morn the death of an animal, that she should rejoice that the Princesses were all found alive and unharmed. Now, she resented Cassia, Caron, and Caitlin. She had raised him from a fawn, and he had given his life for hers, yet his death meant nothing. She had thought about telling Cassia about what she had overheard, but the young woman was now firmly attached at the hip of her girlfriend, and the kisses that had transpired between them seemed like a bittersweet dream now.

She opened the Alcen's stall and clucked her tongue at Rose, the smaller Alcen docilely stepping out of the stall and letting herself be saddled. Moriko had just gotten her meager bag of belongings secured to the Alcen when Talon gave a soft cry of warning.

The blonde turned and blinked in surprise. Of all the people she expected, Sable was not one of them.

ãI thought I spied you from Cassia's window,ä the girl snapped out.

Moriko felt ill at that statement. Cassia had invited Sable into her room in the middle of the night, and it didn't take a genius to figure out what was going on. ãGood for you,ä she snapped back. She grabbed Rose's halter and started to exit.

ãThank the Goddess you're finally leaving. I hope you didn't read too much into those kisses you and Cassia shared. She's mine, since the day we were born my parents told me Cassia and I were meant to be together, that 'I' was meant to be Queen. Those kisses, well, she just needed to have a little fun before we were married.

Moriko felt ill for a second then rounded on the girl. ãYou know, Sable, I bet you've never had a thought in your head that your mothers didn't put there. One day you're going to wake up and realize that you never loved Cassia and you're stuck in a Royal marriage watching the one you do love pass you by, all because your mothers trained you not to think for yourself.ä

ãMy mothers love me!ä the girl hissed out.

ãThey love you enough to have Cassia and the royal twins kidnapped and almost killed.ä She smiled in pleasure as the girl went pale. ãI heard them. When I came back to the town half-dead looking for help. I heard their plot.'

ãIt was just so I wouldn't have to do those tasks. Nobody was meant to get hurt, but those women got out of hand,ä Sable babbled.

ãHow could you even stand to be in the same room with someone who would hurt the person you love?ä Moriko questioned then marched out of the barn, past Sable. She never looked back.

Sable stood stunned then got an odd look of concentration on her face. Pondering what had been said, she sat on a large stone. The sun rose and she didn't even notice, so lost in thought was she.

By midday, Moriko had caught up to the southern travel party. The twins were overjoyed. Keshet merely looked at the young woman and nodded before continuing up into the mountain pass.


It had been a month since Sable had gotten everything she had wanted. Her mothers and Cassia were talking back and forth, making wedding plans. Everyone still called her a hero, and Cassia, for that most part, seemed to be smitten with her. Every once in awhile she caught a sort of bittersweet look on the other woman's face, and Sable had to wonder if Cassia was thinking about Moriko.

More and more she found that odd girl's words rattling around in her head. She was finding that she wasn't really sure what she wanted out of life anymore. Her mothers were annoying with their schemes as to what she would be doing once she was Queen. And there was a young boat smith who had just come to town to talk over some ideas on redesigning ships with Nix that made her heart beat in a funny way and her hands sweat.

In the month that had passed, Cassia had tried hard to put aside any lingering thoughts or feelings she had about Moriko. The other girl's sudden departure had hurt, a lot, especially since she'd not even once allowed Cassia to speak to her. Besides, she was in love with Sable, the hero who had saved all of them. And for that, Cassia owed her. So instead, she focused on talk of the wedding and of what would happen afterwards. She was determined to put aside what she saw as childish things that she'd done before, and become someone worthy of becoming Queen.

"You're quiet tonight." They were both sitting on top of the stables, watching the stars. It had been a while since either of them had spent time alone, all week having been one thing after another with all of the planning. Cassia had finally had to sneak out of her bedroom window to get alone time with the other teenager.

Sable normally wasn't one given to thoughtful ponderings, but she just couldn't get her mind away from what Moriko had said. "I think about my moms a lot and why people call me a hero. I'm not a hero, your mom and that southern guard, the one you were always swooning over, they were the heroes," she said softly, breaking the silence.

The dark-haired girl shifted uncomfortably at that. Had everyone noticed her instant crush on Valdis? Frowning, she shook her head to clear those annoying thoughts.

"You are a hero. You told everyone what happened, without you we'd be..." Cassia paused, not even sure what to say. Where would they have ended up...dead, slaves? Either one was a possibility.

Sable frowned. It was on the tip of her tongue to admit she hadn't seen anything. Her mothers had told her what to say. But in the end, she stayed quiet, not willing to make them look bad. "Do you really want to spend the rest of your life with me?" she blurted out. She hadn't really meant to say it, but now that it was out, she didn't want to take it back.

There was a moment of stunned silence, as Cassia stared in surprise at Sable, an uneasy sensation growing in her stomach. Like she'd lost control of some important thing she hadn't even realized was on the edge of chaos. "I love you," she answered, still trying to figure out what had suddenly changed. "Do you want to spend the rest of your life with me?" Cassia asked, hesitantly.

Sable chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, not answering right away.

"I know about you and Moriko...kissing in the forest. My mothers told me," she said finally. "You go away sometimes and I think you're thinking of her."

It felt, Cassia thought dimly, like her world was tipping on its side. This conversation had come out of nowhere. It was her turn to look away for a moment and not answer. "I liked her," she answered, slowly, truthfully. "I'm sorry about kissing her. I should have told you."

Sable felt worse now, it wasn't like she wasn't without her own secrets. "I saw her, the day she disappeared," she admitted. "I was nasty to her and she was cold in return to me. She said some things I thought mean at the time, but now..." She sighed and shrugged her shoulders.

Dreading and hoping for the answer, Cassia leaned forwards. "You saw her when she left? What did she say?"

"She said that I never had a thought that was my own. She said my mothers did all my thinking for me. Now all I do anymore is think, and wonder," Sable cried out nearly bursting into tears. "She was attacked by the same bandits that attacked you. She lost one of those Alcens of hers, and he died protecting her. My mothers thought it was funny that a simple miner's daughter would get so distraught over an animal."

She might have thought it was funny too, if she hadn't seen the loss and hurt on the girl's own face.

The dark-haired teen closed her eyes in pain at the image of the Aclen's body. She'd gone out to the sight of the attack while Moriko had still been unconscious and recovering. "His name was Rugor," she said quietly.

"My mothers have been telling me we would wed before I even knew what a wedding was. They told me you were the woman for me. I always just believed them, because my mothers were never wrong. But, Cassia, I think they're wrong now." She looked up at the woman she thought she had been in love with, her face wet with tears.

"There's that boat smith visiting your mother...I...she..." Sable couldn't finish. "I think I feel things for her that I should be feeling for you. But telling you all this hurts so much. I'm so confused."

"You...you don't want to get married to me?" Cassia jerked her head up, confused and hurt. The hurt was more than she thought she could bear, wrapping her arms around her knees and hugging them. "You like her?" she asked quietly.

"I'm sorry, Cassia, I do. We haven't done anything but talk. She doesn't even know that I..." Sable blushed and coughed quietly. "My mothers blew up when they caught us talking. I guess we were standing a little too close to each other."

"I guess that means the wedding is off," was all that Cassia could think of to say, closing her eyes once again and leaning her head against her folded up arms. She wanted to crawl away somewhere and make the world go away. First Moriko, now Sable.

She looked over at Cassia, wanting to do something that would make everything right. She was hurting, Cassia was hurting. "I can't talk to anybody about this. My mothers want me to marry you, and you just love me 'cause I'm a hero. And I'm not. I wasn't at the river. I didn't see anything. My mothers told me what had happened and that I should tell the Queen 'cause it would make me look good," Sable rushed everything out, horrified, but feeling happier than she had in a long time.

"You weren't at the river?" Cassia repeated dumbly, feeling sick to her stomach as she realized how everything must have seemed to Moriko. No wonder the other girl had left without saying a word. "Thank you for telling me the truth," she managed to whisper, quite proud at herself for managing even that. "If you like her..." the words were bile in her throat, "you should get to know her before...before she goes away." Cassia had to leave soon, before she completely lost it.

"I'm sorry, Cassia, I'm so sorry. I'll tell my mothers the wedding is off. You'll find someone that makes you happy, not some snobby bitch like me." She grinned, well aware of what she was called behind her back.

Cassia gave a laugh that was more of a sob, and impulsively hugged the other girl. "I never thought you were a snobby bitch," she whispered, hugging her tight. The feelings were getting too much for her to handle, she could feel the tears starting. "I have to go," she blurted, pulling away and standing up.

Sable nodded and wiped her own tears away, but she didn't move, wanting to give Cassia the time to get away so they wouldn't bump into each other.


It was a near thing, but Cassia managed to reach the door to the house without bursting into tears. She'd even hoped to make it to her room without embarrassing herself further, but the instant she stepped inside and saw her mothers, to her horror, she burst into tears. "Sable doesn't love me!" she cried.

Nix frowned and looked at her wife for a second then both of them were moving towards their sobbing daughter. "Pumpkin, what do you mean she doesn't love you?"

"She doesn't want to get married to me! She likes the boat smith!" It came out in a tumble of sobs as she leaned against Nix and felt Selene's arms come around her to hug her.

Nix's face turned red. "I'm going to...I'll...I'm going to boot their asses from one side of the river to the other." Part of her, however, was relieved. Although, she had always thought it would be her daughter to admit she wasn't in love with Sable.

"No!" Cassia pulled back in horror, knowing that would make things even worse. "No, Mom, you can't. You have to promise, please. You can't do anything," the teen pleaded, face streaked with tears. Selene met her wife's eyes, not happy either.

"Well, fine. I promise I won't do anything. Can I at least growl at them and look threatening?'

That got at least a weak smile from the girl, and she gave both her mothers a hug. "Yes, Mom, you can growl and look threatening. I'm going to bed."

Selene watched their daughter storm up the stairs, tears still trailing down her face, then back to her wife. "I guess the wedding is off."

"Thank the Goddess," Nix said with a huge grin. "It was killing me to be nice to those harpies."

Selene smiled back and gave the taller woman her own hug. "Thank the Goddess," she repeated, then stepped back and headed towards the kitchen. "For now, though, we have a girl who has a broken heart...time for some sweets and wine."


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