By W. R. Haley
Disclaimer: This is an original work of fiction. All characters belong to the author. Any similarities to any one living or dead is purely coincidental. This fiction contains scenes of love between two women.
Feedback: Is welcomed and appreciated. Any constructive criticism will be embraced. I can be contacted at Ghstwrtr8@aol.com Please enjoy!
When man was young, before the first Queen sat the High Blood Throne, all four Gods still roamed the world they created. The twin Gods Bellus and Mirus, the Goddess Valeus, and their brother the Black God Daimys.
The God Bellus was somber for his realm was death. When one of the mortal races would die his soul was delivered to the House of Bellus, where it would wait to be reborn. His twin Mirus was the God of War and Fire. He gave early man the means to warm himself, to make weapons and tools, which brought them out of the caves.
The Goddess Valeus, the elder God, was worshipped for her goodness. She brought rebirth. The Spring was her creation. New crops, animals, everything grew, everything was born anew after the harsh winter snows. The Goddess loved her creations and was known to weep when things would wither and die. Her priests and priestess spoke of love, sharing, and piety. All that was good spun from her fingers.
The three Gods doted on their creations and were known as the Triad. They watched with loving eyes as the people prospered, as they learned to harvest and cultivate the lands. The Gods became amused as men fought for dominion over each other. Finally shaking their heads at their antics as the populace grew and they separated themselves into lands and became races and kingdoms.
Daimys stood apart. He hated the light from the bright sun the other three willed to be. He would prowl the world only in darkness after the three moons had set. He viewed the peoples of this world as contemptible. Having no use for those who worshipped his siblings, he set about cultivating his own followers.
He delved deep into the souls of man and found those who held no love for Valeus and the Twins. He spoke to them silently and slowly subverted their will with his. He led his worshippers to a land far away from the others, to the west. He named this land Niam, the land of endless night. He began to see his followers as power. The more they feared him and worshipped him, the more powerful he became. He discovered if they performed sacrifices to him, his strength grew even more.
As his power grew, so did his lust for even more power. He soon realized the potential of the world they had created to be. If only he had Dominion, he thought, if only he was the One True God, he could have unlimited power. His lust for power drove him. He gave magic to his priests. He watched over the mating of his worshippers, they grew in steady numbers. Multiple births became common.
He sat on his Onyx Throne and watched his nation grow and become strong. When he felt they were strong enough he unleashed them unto the world. They rose up and fell upon the worshippers of the Triad.
For centuries the war raged. Niam had superior numbers and magic, but the other nations were better trained. Daimys did not believe he could be defeated, and neither did his worshippers. In their arrogance they were little prepared for the tactics of the worshippers of the Triad.
As the other nations began to win, he unleashed the dark magic of his priests. The death toll mounted and Daimys became more powerful. He reached out and took the souls of the dead before they could reach the House of Bellus.
This enraged his siblings. They rose up to help the other nations as they strove to fight the minions of the Soul Stealer, as they now called their brother. Valeus was enraged that he had given magic to his priest, for the siblings had agreed not to reveal it. Valeus searched the minds and souls of her followers. Most where decent enough but they were more worried about themselves, and their immediate concerns. One race stood out, a race of fierce warriors that Mirus had taught well. They lived in a harsh dry land, a land of endless plains. Their lands were the Plains of Tunon. Valeus and her brothers named them Tunonien, the Blessed Tribe.
They were honorable, fierce, highly intelligent, and they above all seemed to understand the consequences if Daimys and Niam won. Valeus spoke with her brothers and they agreed to her suggestions. They joined their will and strove to imprison Daimys in a ball of pure light. The struggle was intense, almost stripping the three of their energies and power.
The struggle lasted but moments to them, but a generation had passed before the three were able to confine Daimys. The light would drain his energies. He needed the darkness; he fed on the blackness of night. His howl of rage echoed around the world. Then as the battle raged between the nations it was decided that Mirus would approach the Chosen People of the Gods, the Tunonien. He found them engaged in a fierce battle with Niam. It was obvious to the God that the war would be decided in this battle. As Mirus watched the Carussa, the King of the Tunonien was struck down, as was his Heir. The Carun, the war leader, was mortally wounded. With a sadness in his heart, Mirus entered the tent where the Carun, Zura lay dying.
"You have fought bravely Zura," the God Mirus told the astonished Tunonien and his attendants. "Know thy passing will not be in vain, " Mirus said. "I have need to speak with thee Zura. "
"Know that this war is over. But there will be many battles fought as Daimys, the Soul Stealer, attempts to break free from the prison, whence we banished Him. One more war will be waged, the Antranik, the Battle of Souls, will decide the fate of all mankind. If ever Daimys is able to win free the time of Antranik will be upon you.
"My siblings and I are placing a great task upon the Tunonien, we ask that you accept this deed."
"My Lord Mirus, the Tunonien will do as thy bid," Zura managed to say. His wound left him weak; he could not lift his head.
"Thy honor and acceptance becomes you my son," the God beamed. "I have come to give you knowledge my son. I have granted the Tunonien exceptional strength and courage, skill with weapons beyond compare, especially the sword and the staff.
"My brother, Bellus, is granting you long life in order to multiply, to be ready for the task we shall lay at your feet. My sister, Valeus, in her Goodness, has granted you the gift of magic," he paused. With a wave of his hand a bright glow enveloped the gathered Tunonien. "Do you freely accept these gifts in exchange for your service?" he asked formally, his voice carrying to all Tunonien.
"Yes, Lord Mirus," answered the dying Carun. Mirus smiled and the glow of his gifts slowly disappeared as it entered the Tunonien.
"Now for thy task," Mirus became sober. "We set you to guard the realm from Daimys. You are to keep constant vigil against his return. You will ally yourself with the Nation of Tinesse, most specifically the Royal House of Amarilis. You must train and prepare for the Antranik. For it will be the skills you learn and teach that will decide the outcome.
"Your Carussa has entered the House of Bellus, my brother, as has his Heir. There will be no other Carussa," his statement was met with gasps. "Hear me Tunonien!" he thundered.
"When the time comes, the Carussa will be returned to you. An Outlander Carussa delivered up to you by the Blood. The Carussa will lead you in the Antranik.
"How will we know?" Zura's son asked.
"Look well for these signs my Tunonien. When the twin moons rise red, when the winter winds blow early, when Blood once more stains the High Blood Throne, the Outlander Tunonien will come. With the coming of the Outlander, know that the time of the Antranik is upon you. Tunonien will fight Tunonien.
"When the noon sky darkens as for night, when the large moon bleeds red, shall you know the time is near. When winter is early and there is strife in the House of Blood, the Dark God will begin to draw his followers to him. He will begin to break free from his prison.
"The Outlander Tunonien will come, delivered by the Blood, to lead you against the Banished God. This will be your Carussa. The Savior. The Carussa will bear the mark of the Khodr, the sword and the staff, over his heart. Thus, you will know him.
"The final battle will pit Tunonien against Tunonien, brother against sister. If the Savior refuses to learn, and to fight blood, all will be lost. Daimys will break free. We Three Gods, will be destroyed and never ending Night will reign."
"Most Holy Mirus, Tunonien would not turn against their own!" protested Zura weakly, before falling to a fit of coughing.
"Yea, that sad day shall come to pass. Tunonien will give their soul willingly to Daimys. Guard well the Attul, the crown of the Carussa. For it will give power to the Carussa. It grieves me to say, but my brother and my sister and I must depart this world we have created. Our physical presence here gives Daimys power. We must never return. We leave you with this task my son. The Kingdoms of Man will rely on the Tunonien, for if you fail all of Mankind fails. We give you the tools to protect us from the Dark God.
"Be well our children, our Blessed Tribe, be brave. Come now my most honored son, I will lead you to my brother's House."
The Gods departed and the generations of Tunonien learned to master the battle skills and magic that was given to them. The Kingdoms of Man continued on their own course and Niam closed its borders. The endless days passed while the Tunonien seers kept ever-vigilant watch. Now is the time of rejoicing, and the time of despair for the Carussa has returned.
The Plains of Tunon
Taura stared pensively out the window. The Palace courtyard was full of bustling activity. Today was the coronation of the Heir Princess Ehlan. After her mother the Queen was revealed to have sold her soul to the Dark God, Daimys, and disappeared, pregnant, with her lover, the former High Councilor Maybor, the High Council asked Ehlan to ascend the High Blood Throne.
A month had passed since then, giving the city time to heal and prepare for the coronation. Delegates from the Lower Kingdoms had been arriving constantly. The Kings, themselves, would be arriving later this week.
After the coronation Taura would be accompanying the Tunonien back to their home, the Plains of Tunon. Once there she would begin the education to prepare her as the Carussa, the Queen of Tunon. A chill went down her spine, a secret thrill at the sound of it. It was all still too much. The death of her parents had sent her on this path. The desperate search for her brother only to find he had sold his soul to Daimys and murdered their parents, the rush to Borcea with Ehlan to confront her mother. Finding out that not only was she Tunonien, but the Carussa, the one they had waited centuries for. She was to lead them against the massed armies of the Dark God.
And then there was Ehlan. Just the thought of the silver blond haired woman caused Taura's blood to race, followed by a deep pain. The passion they had shared on the road seemed a distant memory. What was sharply in her mind was the vision of Serina pushing her way through Ehlan's caven stating she was Ehlan Betrothed. Taura had pushed her way through the Tunonien bodyguards and refused to go near Ehlan after that. She refused to see Ehlan and after a while Ehlan had not tried to speak with her again. Ehlan did, though, request Taura's presence at every banquet and audience. Each time she went and saw Serina by Ehlan's side, it cut like a knife through her heart. She had never thought that Ehlan would be so cruel.
Taura knew she herself had lost weight and had dark circles under her eyes from lack of sleep. She wished Ehlan had suffered noticeably, as well, but her green eyes remained unlined and her face betrayed no emotions.
A soft knock broke into her reverie. Taura didn't turn though. She knew either Darilas or Urra, her constant companions would answer. She continued to stare unseeing out the window.
Taura was not sure if she wanted to be Carussa, but listening to Darilas she knew someone would need to be. There was a great evil brewing; the Dark God was working even through his prison. Soon he would be able to break free. His followers were massing an army to invade, to kill, and it was to be lead by Anel, her brother. The mass killings of war would give Daimys enough strength to finally break free. Taura knew in her heart that she had no choice. As much as she wanted to return to her family's farm, she could not. The honor and duty of the Tunonien was imbedded in her, regardless of her birthplace. Taura sighed heavily, her eyes still on the courtyard below the window.
"So heavy a sigh," Darilas said coming up behind her.
"That it is," Taura replied flatly, not moving.
"A royal messenger has brought this," Darilas handed her a rolled parchment. Taura took it and opened it. She had sent a messenger to tell her father's friend Enoc what had transpired.
"Taura girl, I am pleased to hear you are safe. I'm truly sorry about Anel. I can't say that I am not surprised to hear of your status. Your father knew who you were. His only regret would be that he was not alive to teach you, to guide you. He was very proud of you little one. I am sure he is watching now from his place in Bellus' House. Make him proud little one. When the time comes, I will bring my sword."
Taura slowly lowered the letter. So her father knew. There was no denying it now. Her parents had in fact been Tunonien. She had harbored a secret desire that it was all a mistake, despite what the spirits of her parents had told her, now she knew it was not. Tears came unbidden to her eyes.
"My father knew," she said softly, still trying to cling to her disbelief, her eyes once again looking out the window.
"I suspect he did. Your father and mother were Tunonien." The two women fell silent; one set of gray eyes watched the courtyard and one set studied the young woman.
"Ehlan has requested you attend this evenings banquet Taura," Darilas told the tall auburn haired woman the next day.
"I suspected she might," Taura answered, dryly. "Send my regrets," Darilas' eyes widened slightly in surprise, but she nodded. "When do we leave for Tunon?" Taura asked when Darilas had returned from sending a page to Ehlan with Taura's regrets.
"The day after the coronation," Taura sighed heavily. "Your impatience to see our home is admirable," Darilas lips twitched with amusement. Taura shot her a side-glance before leaving the room.
"Where is Taura!" Ehlan exclaimed. Darilas turned to face an angry Heir Princess. Ehlan had burst into the sitting room of the chambers that had been given to Taura.
"She doesn't wish to see you Your Majesty."
"I didn't ask that," Ehlan ground out, her eyes blazing. "Now where is she?" Darilas looked at her for a moment before pointing to the closed door of Taura's bedchamber. Ehlan strode arrogantly to the door before flinging it open.
"Why aren't you coming to the banquet tonight?" Ehlan demanded entering the room. Taura looked up startled from the book she was reading. Her eyes narrowed angrily.
"I have no desire to toast to your good health any longer." Ehlan's head snapped back as if Taura had struck her.
"What happened to the woman I traveled with Taura?" Ehlan asked softly.
Taura rose easily from the chair. Her eyes taking in the silver blond hair that fell to straight shoulders, tall rigid body, finely muscled legs, firm high breasts, the beautiful haughty face that wore a glare and her heart ached.
"I could ask you the same," Taura replied. "But I am afraid the lady Serina has the answer to that," she spat. Ehlan frowned. "I must confess though, I was surprised you never mentioned you were Betrothed when we were on the road. Maybe because you were too busy bedding me," Taura's voice was hard, bitter. Ehlan stood silently. "Well, have you nothing to say for yourself?" she finally demanded.
"No," Ehlan sighed.
"How could you share the Blessing with me when you were Promised to another?" Taura asked her voice stricken.
"It wasn't like that Taura, you must listen to me," Ehlan stepped closer, her hand reaching out to touch Taura.
"You lied to me Ehlan," Taura took a step back. "Nothing you can say will change that."
"You don't understand Taura, the Promise ceremony has not yet been preformed, the words have not been spoken," she moved again trying to get closer to Taura. "You must believe me, I don't love Serina."
"What about Nemi?" Taura spat the name. "Do you love her?"
"Nemi?" asked Ehlan puzzled.
"Yes, you remember her don't you? Or have you slept with too many to name?" Taura asked harshly.
"I told you I was no virgin Taura, remember?" Ehlan asked beginning to get angry herself, her green eyes sparkling dangerously. "I asked you if that mattered to you remember?" she asked sarcastically. "Do you remember what you said? You asked if they were in the room with us, you said they didn't matter, remember?" Ehlan moved closer to Taura, close enough to touch her.
"Don't come near me," Taura said softly, her gray eyes boring into Ehlan's.
"Taura, please, you must listen. I don't love Serina, or Nemi."
"Why?" demanded Taura. "Why don't you love them? Is it because Nemi is a servant? Serina is of royal blood! She is the sister to King Vicoll of Titone! Please don't say that you love me, I'm just a sheepherder!"
"No Taura, please don't say that," Ehlan protested. "It has nothing to do with their status. I don't love them, I never have, I can't answer why," she sighed.
"Did you tell Serina you would join with her?" asked Taura softly.
Ehlan looked at Taura, knowing that she would not like what she had to say.
"I knew Serina was in love with me. I don't share her feelings. Taura I am not proud of it but I did not discourage her feelings," she paused, and turned away from Taura, turning her attention to the window. Ehlan took a deep breath before continuing. "She may have gotten the impression I would join with her when I returned from Fadgon," Ehlan stopped. Taura waited.
"One day, after a long meeting with my mother and her advisors I sought out Serina. They had been trying to get me to agree to a political match with a daughter of a particularly powerful Tibor. My mother had not been too happy with my friendship with Serina, she felt that Vicoll was feeling too powerful and she did not want to give him any more power. I didn't like their highhanded methods. So, being the hot head I can be I sought out Serina and," she lowered her blond head hiding her face from Taura's penetrating gray gaze. "I told her that I'd join with her before I let the advisors pick my Chosen," it was silent as Ehlan stood embarrassed and Taura let the information sink in. "I didn't mean it the way she took it."
"She feels that you are Betrothed," Taura said softly.
"Yes, I have to tell her."
"You haven't told her?" Taura was incredulous.
"Ehlan, you don't even know what it is that you have done do you?" Taura asked, her voice tight. Ehlan frowned, not understanding the question. Taura shook her head and turned away.
"Ehlan you should have told her before now."
"I know, I know. There wasn't time before I left for Fadgon and since I have been back, well, there have been other things."
"You are a coward," was the harsh response. Ehlan narrowed her eyes dangerously.
"You forget yourself Taura," she warned softly.
"I forget nothing!" Taura whirled to face Ehlan again. "I certainly didn't forget how you have hurt me! How you have hurt Nemi and Serina!"
"I never meant to hurt them Taura! It's not my fault Nemi believed she could rise above her station. I am not the first to bed a servant and I will not be the last!"
"And that's supposed to make it better? Because she is a servant? I suppose it is not your fault that I loved you? After all I am nothing but a sheepherder. You are not the first to bed a sheepherder and you will not be the last!" Taura raised her chin in challenge her eyes bright with anger.
"Stop it! Taura you are not just a sheepherder! You are the Carussa of the Tunonien! And even if you just a sheepherder I could not help my feelings for you."
"But you could not join with me, if I were just a sheepherder," the words were spoken softly, yet they stung for Ehlan could not deny the truth of them. The council would never approve of a joining with a commoner.
"You are not a sheepherder Taura," she said empathically.
"Oh yes, I am the Carussa," Taura began to pace the room. "Did you know that when you bedded me? I don't think you did. Did you think so little of me as to think I would give myself to you if I did not love you? You let me share myself with you when you knew there was no future! You used me Ehlan, and made what we shared dirty!"
"I never told you there would be a future Taura. I never promised anything!" Ehlan shouted. "I bedded you because I wanted to, because you wanted to!"
"How dare you!" Taura moved to Ehlan so quick the other was unprepared. Taura grabbed Ehlan's shirt and pulled her so close their eyes were scant inches away from each other. "How dare you justify what you did by reducing it to its base level!"
"But wasn't that what we did Taura? Reduce our attraction to its base level? Didn't you want me Taura?" Ehlan's voice was taunting. "Didn't you want to feel me against you? In you? Did you promise me anything? Did you tell me that you loved me? Did you tell me there would be a future?" Her words slammed into Taura, their eyes were locked each searching for something.
"I never meant to hurt Nemi and Serina," Ehlan continued, her eyes begging for Taura to understand. "I never meant to meet you, I never meant to desire you. When we were traveling our emotions were heightened, you made me feel so alive! No one has ever fought for me Taura! No one has ever shared herself with me for no other reason than because they desired me. I never gave Serina a thought from the moment I saw you."
"But you should have Ehlan," Taura released her and moved away putting some distance between them. "Regardless of the circumstances, they both have feelings, which you knew. You were not free to share with me. You knew that! I was free Ehlan and I thought you were too," Taura turned away trying to fight the tears that threatened to fall.
"I know, I know!" Ehlan shouted throwing her arms up in the air. "I was a swine! I admit it! Are you going to punish me for the rest of our lives?"
"I'm not punishing you Ehlan," Taura's voice was calm as she faced Ehlan her eyes were unreadable.
"Then don't run from me anymore," Ehlan lowered her voice and took a step closer to Taura, aching to take her in her arms. "We discovered something special while we were traveling."
"Yes we did," Taura sighed, crossing her arms over her chest, hugging herself. She took a step back from Ehlan, not wanting the woman to touch her and weaken her resolve.
"Be with me," was the soft request.
"I can't Ehlan," the whispered response stunned Ehlan. She looked in disbelief at the woman across from her. Taura tightened her hold on her self.
"Taura, don't do this. We shared the Blessing. I," she swallowed hard, "I, uh, I want to be with you," she finished lamely. Taura chuckled ruefully.
"You can't say it can you?" Taura shook her head and walked to the window.
"What do you want me to say?"
"Ehlan, if I tell you it won't mean anything. I can't be with you like that. Always wondering if you will meet someone else. Or if someone from noble birth will catch your eye and you take them as Chosen."
"But Taura you are of noble birth," Ehlan blurted out. She groaned inwardly.
"Ah, I see, and that makes me acceptable now," Taura's voice was bitter and hard.
"No, Taura," Ehlan began.
"I don't want to hear any more Ehlan," Taura cut her off. "I'm leaving after your coronation. Darilas has stated it is time to begin my lessons. She says it is best to learn in the ancestral home of the Tunonien."
"You can't," Ehlan was stricken, the thought of Taura leaving caused a pain, almost as if a dagger had been plunged into her heart.
"I must Ehlan. If even half of what we have learned is true, we are headed for a war. We all must be ready."
"They can teach you here."
"I'm sure," Taura shrugged, sounding more nonchalant than she felt.
"Taura don't do this. Did what we share mean so little to you?" Ehlan pleaded. She was surprised to hear the pleading note in her voice.
"It meant everything to me!" Taura spat angrily whirling to face the blond woman.
Her eyes blazed angrily. Energy crackled from her. Ehlan took a step back, surprised. Standing before her was the Tunonien Carussa, the mystical being who would fight a God. Ehlan shivered.
"Everything! Don't you understand that?" Taura shouted unaware of the effect she was having on the Heir Princess. "Because it meant so much to me, it pains me to see that it didn't mean as much to you."
"How can you say that?"
"How could I not? You had Serina patiently waiting for you. If she was unavailable there was always Nemi, and countless other women I'm sure. I have heard the rumors Ehlan," she imparted sarcastically.
"None meant a thing to me Taura. None but you," Ehlan said softly, her eyes pleading with Taura to see the love she felt. "From the moment we met there was no one but you. I have been tormented by the memory of the kiss we should not have shared and haunted by the feel of your lips against mine," Ehlan's voice was low, husky, ripe with pain. After a moment Taura turned away hiding her own pain.
"I wish I could believe that." Silence fell between the two women.
"Taura, does it matter how we started?" Ehlan asked breaking the silence. "We belong together, I can feel it and I know you can. You can't hold me responsible for the women I bedded before you."
"I don't. But I do hold you accountable for Serina," was the reply. The room was silent as their wills clashed. Neither moved the sound of their breathing filled the air.
"What can I do?" Ehlan finally asked her voice was tight with anger. "How can I prove to you what I say is true?"
"Obviously," snapped the new Queen. She turned on her heel and strode to the door. "Taura when you decide to let the past go, let me know," with that she flung open the door stopping before she went through it. "I never meant to hurt you," she said in a whisper. Without waiting for a reply she strode arrogantly from the suite. Taura did not turn from the window.
"But you did."
The day of Ehlan's coronation dawned bright. The sky was a deep endless blue, with just a few large ponderous clouds sailing through it. There was a crispness in the air, expectation hung heavy. Taura busied herself by preparing for her journey to her new home.
The Tunonien who knew who she was provided her with everything, from cloak to boots to the very food she ate. After much debate she was allowed to help purchase the supplies they would need on their journey as well as things that were hard to come by in the Plains. She bought gifts for the family she had never met nor knew she had. The days she filled up by sparring in the practice ring with the Tunonien. Most of the Tunonien regarded her gravely as if unsure what to think of her, their eyes though were always curious. She pushed her self hard, harder than they were willing to do. Respect soon began to shine in their eyes as they fell to her staff or sword. Darilas watched it all, knowing the reason why Taura pushed herself to the brink of exhaustion. She was trying to burn from her memory the image of Ehlan. Sadly, Darilas also knew that it did not matter how hard Taura tried it would not matter. That no matter how hard the two fought against it, they were meant to be together and when the time was right the Goddess would join them.
Darilas sighed softly as she let herself into the Carussa's suite. As the day of their departure drew near Taura grew short tempered.
"It is time," Darilas said to the young auburn haired woman. Taura turned from her usual spot at the window.
"Yes, Carussa," Darilas' voice was soft.
Taura shot her a hard look. Taura had decided that until they were in Tunon and she had earned the right, she was not to be called that. She shook her head but decided not to say anything.
Silently she left the room, surrounded by a small honor guard, her caven. It was made up of the Tunonien who knew who she was. Taura suspected the others of the te-sudariem in residence knew who she was, but they stayed silent. As they walked to the throne room Taura thought of the te-sudar that had accompanied Baran back to the capital city. A te-sudar could number anywhere from 100 to 500 fighting members, some even more. Darilas had told her there were hundreds of te-sudar clans or te-sudariem as they were called in the multiple. She proudly announced that the Tunonien numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The exact number staggered Taura.
Darilas had also told her that most of the te-sudariem had never left Tunon. They were the gatherers, the hunters, the elderly and the young. There were also clans that never left the Plains, preferring to live in roaming caravans, never entering the city of Tunon unless bidden to attend the Duma, the High Council meetings, or the Dhala, the festival. She had explained to Taura that the Tunonien were governed by the Duma, the council. The Carun, the Battle Wizard was the deciding voice. Most everything else was ruled and decided by the voting members of the Duma. The council itself was made up of members who were voted in by the general populace of Tunon. Every three passings a new election was held, at the Dhala and a new council was voted in. The only permanent member was the Carun. They held that position for life. The election of the new Carun was a long complicated matter that Taura didn't understand, something about birthright, magic right and a trial of might.
The Dhala was a time of great celebration, Darilas explained. A festival marked the occasion, lasting 3 days. The next election Dhala was in 1 passing. Darilas told Taura it was a spectacle worth waiting for. She also suggested that if Taura was ready she should be crowned then. Taura grimly hoped they would be able to see it, that war had not come to them.
When Taura entered the packed throne room all eyes turned to her. Hundreds of eyes watched and wondered who she was as she strode arrogantly toward her place at the front. She had just settled in when a Priestess of Valeus entered, her crisp white robe almost glowed in the candlelight. The High Council followed her. A hush fell over the large crowd. A resounding fanfare sounded and Ehlan entered.
She wore a deep blue robe trimmed in silver. Her blond head was held high, eyes on no one. As she ascended the High Blood Throne, Taura thought she had never looked more regal. The robe hid her lean, strong body and firm breasts that Taura still dreamed about. Her silver blond hair shone in the light, her green eyes were lit with an inner fire.
From her anonymous position in the crowd she let her eyes feast upon the woman who had stolen her heart. Her guard lowered, the naked admiration and love she felt shown through. Tears stung her eyes as her heart swelled. So entranced was she that Taura did not notice Darilas studying her, nor did she notice the elaborate ceremony. A large resounding cheer snapped her attention. From the city was heard a cacophony of bells and shouts as the people of Borcea celebrated. Ehlan faced the crowd of nobles; the shining crown perched on her almost silver hair. A glow seemed almost to surround her; a smile formed on her lips but didn't quite reach her eyes. Those glorious green eyes searched until they fell on Taura. Their gazes locked with a profound click, felt in their souls. They lost themselves in each other's eyes, the crowd cheered on.
Taura sat astride her horse silently. Her almond shaped gray eyes were staring off in the distance, unseeing. She was totally unaware of her surroundings. Taura gazed unseeing at the terrain around her. Her thoughts were troubled as they lingered on the last time she had spoken with Ehlan, just yesterday.
"You sent for me Your Majesty?" asked Taura after being shown into the Queen's private audience chamber. Ehlan sat on the smaller duplicate of the High Blood Throne, her eyes unreadable as she looked at Taura.
"Yes, Carussa, I did," the Queen answered just as formally. The two fell silent. Taura noticed that her caven had discreetly withdrawn, leaving them alone. "You leave on the morrow," Ehlan finally stated simply.
"Yes," they fell silent again.
"I can't change your mind?" Ehlan asked softly, surprised to hear the huskiness in her voice.
"It's not as simple as that Your Majesty."
"My name is Ehlan," she snapped angrily. "And I'm positive you have not forgotten it."
"No, I haven't."
"I miss the sound of it on your lips," Ehlan's eyes were hungrily on Taura's mouth, remembering them on her own lips, on her body.
You hear your name from other lips," Taura countered, trying to keep her heart hard. Ehlan caught her breath, her eyes narrowed sharply.
"But none sound as sweet as yours," Taura took a deep breath.
"Not even Serina's?"
"Good Gods woman!" Ehlan roared. "Can't you leave that alone?"
"No, because you could not! Have you been sleeping alone Your Majesty?" she asked softly, her words cutting into Ehlan. The Queen did not answer.
"What must I do to prove to you?"
"You don't have to prove anything to me, it's to yourself that you need to prove something to."
"What in all the Hells is that supposed to mean?" Ehlan asked puzzled.
"I'm not going to fight again Ehlan," Taura sighed heavily, turning her gaze toward the tapestry on the wall.
"I don't want to fight either Taura," the two fell silent once again. Each wanting to say so much, yet unsure what they could or should say.
"I must go," Taura finally said breaking the silence. She turned and headed for the door. Suddenly Ehlan was there, her hand on Taura's arm, stopping her.
"Must I beg and plead?" Ehlan asked harshly, her voice ragged.
"Have you told Serina?" Taura countered, Ehlan's eyes widened slightly giving Taura her answer. "Have you answered to yourself the question of my birth?"
"If I were not the Carussa would you still want me?"
"But you are the Carussa."
"Yes I am!" Taura faced Ehlan angrily. "And I have too much self respect to be with someone for all the wrong reasons. And I refuse to be with someone who could play with someone's emotions so easily!"
"Grow up Taura!" Ehlan's eyes blazed angrily. "We are not in your little village. We're not a group of farmers. Here in the real world we have pasts, we have mistakes, and we've learned to move on! We have a responsibility to our noble births and that means a noble joining. I am sorry I thought to live up to my responsibility before I met you! I am sorry I had responsibilities to my birth before we shared the Blessing! Here in the real world things like that happen."
"And on the farm Ehlan, we learned to live up to our mistakes and take responsibility for them!" Taura shouted back. "And yes, we too, learned to move on!" with that she jerked her arm loose and reached for the door.
"I won't wait," Ehlan called out softly, her eyes hooded and unreadable. Taura stopped but did not turn around. The silence stretched tautly.
"Neither will I," with that Taura left the room, Ehlan standing and looking at the empty doorway.
Tears stung Taura's eyes as she thought of the last argument. Why did Ehlan have to be so stubborn? She asked herself. Why couldn't she just tell Serina and say the one thing that would send Taura into her arms? Taura loved Ehlan, she was almost sure that Ehlan loved her. What she wasn't sure about was if Ehlan loved her before when she was just a sheepherder or after it was clear that Taura was more than she seemed. Taura wasn't sure why it mattered to her but it did.
"Little one, you must eat," Darilas said softly to the silent Taura.
They had stopped for the night. Taura sat in front of her tent and stared at nothing. The sights of the world around her did little to arouse her. She had ceased to see anything other than Ehlan's face. She ignored the wooden bowl filled with a fragrant stew.
"Taura," Darilas sat down in front of the sad woman.
"Darilas why?" Taura whispered brokenly.
"One must never question the Goddess," was the reply. Taura closed her eyes as two slow tears slid down her cheek. Darilas watched the auburn haired woman silently, her heart aching for the pain Taura was in.
They traveled for weeks. Taura withdrew deep into herself. She began to doubt the wisdom of what she was doing. Going to a land where she knew not a soul to learn a lifestyle that was foreign to her. Taura began to doubt that she was who they said she was. What did she know of the Tunonien and their magic? Darilas would spend hours telling her of the history of the Tunonien but it did little to allay her fears and doubts.
Taura knew in her head that some one had to lead the Tunonien against Anel and the armies of the Dark God; she just wasn't so sure it should be her. She was just a sheepherder from the district of Demos, what did she know of magic and Gods? Now more than ever she missed her parents and longed for them to be with her now. Taura also missed Ehlan terribly. They had not seen much of each other after the fight in the Throne room but Taura knew she could see her if she wanted, now Ehlan was leagues away and Serina was with her. She forcibly pushed those thoughts away from her.
Taura's first sight of the endless Plains of Tunon quite literally took her breath away. Winter had not yet reached the Plains and a hot arid breeze blew. Chest high stalks of grain, oats and wheat, growing wild, waved in the breeze. It stretched as far as the eye could see. In the distance the smoky blue gray mountain, the color of Tunonien eyes, marked the stationary home of the Tunonien.
"Goddess," breathed Taura, reining in her horse. Her caven stopped as well. Darilas beamed with pride.
"Behold, the Plains of Tunon, land of the Blessed Tribe," she intoned formally, sweeping an arm. All around men and women were dismounting.
"What's going on?" Taura asked puzzled.
"No Tunonien may enter the Plains before asking the Gods benediction. We must praise the Gods for the gifts they bestowed on us and show we are still worthy."
"I don't know the ritual."
"Not to worry Carussa, I will be performing the ritual," smiled Darilas reassuringly. Taura dismounted.
She was directed to kneel facing the Plains, her staff on her right, her sword on the left, angled so the top of the staff and the hilt of the sword crossed in front of her. All around her others were placing themselves in a similar position. Darilas placed herself, alone, in front of them, closest to the invisible line that separated Tunon from Tinesse.
Darilas began to speak in the language of Tunon. The strange musical language floated into Taura's ears, sending her pulse racing, igniting some secret flame inside her. Taura felt her spirit soar over the kneeling Tunonien. As she looked down at the bowing people, their foreheads touching their crossed weapons, their voices raised in response she felt herself fly higher.
Soaring ever higher, racing toward the sun, its brilliant rays surrounding her in an intense glow. The brilliance blinded her. Suddenly she felt an enormous presence next to her, riding the rays of the sun with her. A wondrous feeling of peace and love washed over her, washing away her doubts and fears. So pure in essence that tears sprang to her eyes. The love and joy she felt from the unseen presence pierced her very soul. Her senses were tingling with the bombardment of emotion.
Another presence joined the first. This one was harder, still filled with love, yet shaded with practicality. Then a third came, bringing with it love and a profound sadness laced throughout. The three slipped into and through Taura, reading her soul and soothing her fears. Images filtered before her eyes of places not yet seen, people loved and lost.
Suddenly a forth presence was felt. This one was dark, with evil pouring from it. Hatred, lust, fear even. Anger shot forth. Taura felt her resolve harden and pushed against that hatred and anger. Just as suddenly as it appeared did the fourth disappear.
"Well met daughter," a soft woman's voice said. The voice was immense, vast and small all at once. It came from the first loving presence. With a final touch each light filled presence left, leaving Taura feeling suddenly bereft. As she rose from her bow, tears streamed down her cheeks. Looking around she saw similar looks on the faces of the still kneeling Tunonien.
"Rise Tunonien, rise and enter," intoned Darilas. A great shout of joy accompanied that statement. Hurriedly they mounted and began their journey.
"It is quiet here," Taura commented softly later. They had been riding along a path that lead deeper into the Plains.
"Everything is in harmony here. We do nothing to upset the harmony and balance. Everything is at peace," Darilas explained. The two women rode along in silence.
"You are truly blessed by the Gods," Darilas breathed reverently, her eyes on the form of a snowy white bird.
"What do you mean?" Taura followed her gaze. The large bird swooped closer; its impressive wingspan caused a shadow. It soared overhead, circling slowly. The birds deadly looking beak and talons sent a shiver down her spine. Suddenly with a cry of triumph the bird of prey spied its victim and with powerful wings swooped down. Just as suddenly it started to rise again, a rabbit clutched tight in its talons. Taura watched as the magnificent bird flew away.
"That was a Zevolo," Darilas said softly. "They are closely related to the eagle, except they are larger, more intelligent and totally white. You are blessed Carussa."
"Why do you say that?" frowned Taura.
"The Zevolo rarely shows itself. The rare times it has signifies a momentous occasion. The seers have studied it intensely. They show normally at the birth of a special Tunonien. There was one seen by your grandmother on the birth of your father. I myself saw one on the day I fought for the Aris of the Carun. "
"My grandmother?" she asked, the word seemingly foreign to her.
"Yes," Darilas grinned suddenly. "You have a whole family of uncles, cousins, aunts, a grandmother, your father's mother. Unfortunately your maternal grandparents passed into Bellus' house many seasons ago."
"I had no idea," Taura breathed in awe. "My parents never spoke of it. For that matter they rarely spoke of anything that happened before they settled the farm."
"It must have pained them tremendously to be so far away from Tunon," sighed Darilas her thoughts on the past.
"Why did they leave Darilas, do you know?" Darilas took a deep breath before answering.
"It is a troubled story little one," she finally said her blue gray eyes were sad.
"I need to know," insisted the younger auburn haired woman.
"I suppose you do." Darilas was silent as she gathered her thoughts. The only sound was the hoof beats of their horses.
"Your father and mother met after her sixteenth passing. They were from rival te-sudar clans and Gelen was a hot headed youth," she chuckled fondly.
"When Gelen saw Maura he was completely bewitched. He could not take his eyes from her. Gelen often found excuses to go by her te-sudar compound. His family tried to talk to him, but he was having none of it. He was enchanted. The te-sudariem were all present for the Govan the election held every three passings at the Dhala. There are always games and contests during Dhala and no more so than during Govan. Gelen entered everything hoping to catch Maura's eye. He did," she sighed regretfully.
"You make it sound like a bad thing," Taura accused.
"In a way it was," Darilas replied. "Maura was Promised to another, the son of the Carus of her te-sudar. He was very jealous and possessive," she paused looking over at Taura. "Are you sure you want to hear this?"
"Yes, very sure," was the firm reply.
"When Zhruk was told of the budding romance he was furious, he forced his father to have the joining ceremony right away, in secrecy. Zhruk and his followers spirited Maura away and with no witness from her family forced her to join with him. Once the ceremony was finished Zhruk sent runners to spread the word.
"Gelen was devastated. Just that day they had pledged their love and Gelen had vowed to speak with his father and the Carun to gain permission to join."
"That's terrible. But how did they manage to be together?" asked Taura, engrossed in the story.
"Ah that is the tragic part. The next day Zhruk's te-sudar left to return to their homes. But not before all of Tunon saw what he had done to his bride," Darilas' voice was hard. "He had beat Maura severely. Her face was beaten almost beyond recognition, both eyes swollen shut, bruises up and down her arms," tears sprang to Taura's face as she pictured her mother's lovely face battered so.
"Gelen was beside himself, he wanted to fight Zhruk, but his father forbid him. Two of his cousins physically held him down until Zhruk was out of sight. I had never seen him look more helpless. For the next three years your father studied hard, soon no one could surpass him in magic or fighting. He was being trained to be Carun so great was his talent. Gelen rose through the ranks till none but the old Carun stood above him. It was decided that he would challenge at the next Dhala.
"Meanwhile the news from Maura was not good. She suffered horribly at the hands of Zhruk. His brutality knew no bounds. Her mother was often in tears as she related the horrors her daughter suffered daily at the hands of her husband. Gelen listened to it all with a face of stone."
"Why didn't anyone stop it? Why didn't she leave?" Taura demanded angry about what her mother had had to suffer.
"Tunonien marry for life Taura," was the simple answer. "You must understand no Tunonien condoned what he was doing. She refused to bring it before the Duma. Under our laws only she could have done so. The Duma would have set aside the joining had she done so, but they could not act unless she brought it formally before them. She refused. The Duma did send many warnings to him and his father. His father even refused to name him Carus, leader of their clan, naming Zhruk's brother instead. This only infuriated Zhruk more."
"There should have been something," insisted Taura, sick at heart.
"We did everything we could," Darilas told her sadly.
"At the next Dhala Maura appeared, a small child on her hip, your brother Anel," Darilas paused casting a look at the stunned Taura. "Her face was once again bruised and battered, one wrist was bandaged. When Gelen saw her, his face went bleak and harder than I had ever seen.
"He wisely stayed away from that day, but sometime during that first night they met next to the stream outside the city. Zhruk found them there. He had with him three kinsman and they drew swords and surrounded Gelen. They intended to kill him. Gelen's magic was strong though, and he bound the kinsmen in light and faced Zhruk with nothing but the staff, which you now carry. He told Maura to run and turned to face Zhruk.
"Zhruk had not been to the city in three years. He was not aware that he was no match for Gelen; there was no match for him. Soon Zhruk lay dead at Gelen's feet. Gelen and Maura were horrified at what had happened. Gelen had never meant to kill Zhruk."
"Why not? He deserved to die!"
"Yes, he did, but little one, you must understand, every Tunonien is necessary to complete the task set upon us by the Gods. It is a sin to spill Tunonien blood. You must perform a purification ritual and ask and receive a benediction from a priest of priestess. Gelen had done neither. In panic they fled. No one has seen them since," Darilas finished sadly.
"Word reached us years later that they were expecting another child, you. I preformed a joining ceremony, joining them for life. From what we've heard they were very happy together."
"Yes, they were," whispered Taura, tears in her eyes.
She had never known the pain the two of them had felt. The knowledge that Anel was only her half brother still stunned her. Her father had never once treated Anel any different. In fact at times he was painfully fair.
"So, then I suppose I will be greeted with less than open arms," she commented ruefully.
"That may have been true. After we heard your mother was with child, the seers came to the Duma. There was great portent written into your birth. They asked the Duma to pardon Gelen. After much debate the council tried him, his brother Doran stood in his stead. At the end he was found not responsible and innocent in the charge of murder. We never found him to tell him," Darilas sighed regretfully. "We had runners searching for years. We never thought they would go so far north. It must have been hard on them, those cold winters. Here in Tunon the winter is very mild. It has never snowed here. Some Tunonien have never seen snow."
"They never said if it bothered them," Taura told her. "I don't think they would have said," the two auburn haired women were silent for a while.
"Did you know my parents?" asked Taura softly.
"Your father I knew very well, little one," there was a pause, "he was my brother."
The next few days passed quietly as they rode steadily closer to the mountain range spread out before them. Taura herself remained quiet and withdrawn. Since discovering the bodies of her parents her world had been turned upside down. She worked frantically to bring some sort of order to her chaotic thoughts and emotions.
After learning of her brother Anel's betrayal and the murder of her parents she believed herself to be an orphan, that all family ties had been lost. With the betrayal of Ehlan she felt adrift, alone. Now suddenly she had an aunt, uncles and cousins, and a grandmother all waiting patiently for Taura to arrive. She also had an entire nation of people waiting for her alter identity, the Carussa to show. And if legends were to be believed, not just a nation, but also all of mankind was awaiting her.
The enormity of the situation began to set in, pressing on her. First her parents death, killed by her brother Anel. Then her mad dash across the land of her birth with the Heir Princess, then finding her magic and learning that she was the Carussa, it was all she could do not to go run screaming into the Plains. Taura longed to return to the quiet farm where she grew up. She even wanted to go back to the sheep! As they grew closer to the gray blue mountain Taura fell deeper into mEhlancholy. Her mind and her heart were warring. Darilas understood and left Taura to her own devices.
Almost two weeks later the endless Plain started to end. They passed more and more people. All doing day-to-day things, harvesting, fishing, hunting, training with their weapons or training the superb horses the Tunon were famous for. There were many small canvas villages. Each erected and habited by a different te-sudar. They watched curiously as their Carun acted as caven to the strange woman. Darilas made no explanation, keeping her answers vague to any impolite enough to question. As they left each canvas village they would pack up and follow Taura, curious enough to follow until answers were given.
Taura regarded it all with a curiosity of her own. The people were all tall and lean, hard fighting muscle rippled for both men and women. They rarely smiled, but she could see the warm emotions that flickered quick silver through their blue gray eyes. There was also a strange tingling sensation coursing through her, almost a vibration that she could feel, almost in her very soul. Every once in awhile she would hear a humming, or ringing in her ears. Whenever that happened, Darilas would get a distant look on her face almost as if she were listening to the wind.
Taura was not prepared for her first sight of Tunon. The permanent home and ancestral site of the Tunonien was immense. She was not sure what she had expected but the sight that greeted her that early afternoon would forever be etched in her mind.
Tunon was actually one of the mountains in the range that split the Plains. Great causeways were etched in the face of the stone mountain and homes were built right into the mountain itself. Open area markets were visible along the causeways. The causeways wound up the mountain to a large manor built into the mountain. Darilas said that was the Mannus, or the Carussa's residence. Above that stood the Temple of the Triad. Taura was amazed at the amount of homes and council chambers that had been carved out of the face of the mountain. Most were open but some had a straw covering. The causeways were filled with people going about their day, stopping at the markets, visiting the Temple, gossiping with neighbors. The Mannus was eerily absent of movement.
As they got closer Taura was able to see at the base of the mountain a cluster of buildings, which Darilas told her they were stables, inns and a few taverns. There was also sitting separate was a large stone building at least four stories high and almost as wide as the mountain behind it. The building housed the Zariet, the academy, where the Tunonien learned and studied their weapons, sword, staff and magic. Practice fields were spread out behind it.
In the open area at the base a group of children were playing a game with a ball; their laughter filled the air. All the people that Taura could see were dressed similarly to her. Sand colored trousers and tunics with supple leather boots. A few wore robes and almost all were armed with a sword or a staff, a few with both. The ring of a blacksmiths hammer soared above the murmur of voices. Taura was amazed at the sheer magnitude of people that made the mountain city their home. People began to pour out of the homes and down the causeway as they caught sight of the travelers.
"Behold the Blessed City of Tunon," Darilas stated proudly with a flourish.
Around her the others started to dismount as friends and relatives began to excitedly greet them. Darilas motioned to Taura to stay mounted as her caven moved to surround her. Many curious looks were thrown in their direction. Taura noticed a small group of men and women come down the causeway from the Temple lead by a shorter woman in the white robes of a priestess. They walked with grace and dignity. Taura watched as they moved easily almost as one toward the gathered crowd.
"Taura do not dismount until I tell you," Darilas said softly tearing Taura's gaze from the approaching group.
"Who are they?" she asked indicating the group with a nod of her head.
"Members of the Duma and the Priestess of the Triad and the High Priestess of Valeus."
Curiously Taura watched, as the crowd grew larger, a feeling of expectation was evident as they whispered amongst themselves. Some looked at Taura with curiosity, some with blank expressions all seemed content to wait. Taura could only make out a fraction of what they said.
As they waited for the Duma to reach them Darilas told Taura that the city of Tunon was only one of five permanent cities in Tunon. The city was built from the mountain itself. It was said the mountain was Holy because at the crest of the mountain was where the Gods stood as they created the world. The Tunonien were the Blessed Tribe because they above all people were permitted to live in such a holy place. The tribes of Tunon would all gather in the mountain city on Holy Days and for festivals and of course every third passing for the Dhala. All Tunonien came to the city at their sixteenth passing to begin their formal training in weapons and magic. Once finished with their education the Tunonien with their newly acquired title, Sudarien and their Affan they would return to their te-sudar. Some would stay to continue their education to become masters and teachers to become a Kaden.
"Greetings to the Carun of the Tunonien from the Duma," came a solemn voice once the group reached them. Urra dismounted and moved to stand at Taura's stirrup to translate for her.
"Greetings to the Duma of the Tunonien from the Carun," was Darilas' response.
"May the suns rays always find you."
"And also you."
"Goddess met." The council and Darilas finished the ritual greeting.
"Duma, I have brought a gift!" Darilas said her voice carrying over the crowd. "A most wondrous gift. All of Tunon will rejoice and celebrate my gift."
"The Carun is always generous and wise. But what is this wondrous gift you have brought?" a tall man asked, he moved from his position at the rear of the gathered council.
"Behold Tunonien, for I bring to you," Darilas turned to look solemnly at Taura her gray eyes unreadable. "I bring you Taura te'Muira, daughter of Maura and Gelen te'Muira, sister to Anel te'Zhura, granddaughter to Rayma tu'Muira," she paused again letting the information sink in.
"She was delivered unto us by the Blood, by the Heir Princess Ehlan herself! She is a Tunonien raised in an Outlander village as an Outlander in the Northern reaches of Tinesse. Around her neck she wears the amulet of Gelen and shows signs of being Kutun of being able to communicate with other Tunonien through the wind. Upon her breast she wears the mark of the Khodr! Rejoice Tunon for the Prophesy has come to pass and the Gods have given the Blessed Tribe their Carussa!"
Sudden silence descended on the gathering as they took in Darilas' words. The council members looked between each other, their shock evident on their faces. The gathering looked at Taura half afraid as if unsure if she really was there. Taura gasped in surprise as men and women began dropping to their knees, bowing deeply and laying their foreheads to the ground. They began to chant.
"Lead us Carussa, you are our head and our heart, we are your body. We are the sword and the staff, the weapons you wield against the Dark God's forces. We fight at your direction." Urra translated the soft words to her. Taura was slightly dismayed. She had expected disbelief, not this complete obedience. Taura shifted uncomfortably as all around her more and more Tunonien fell to their knees and joined in the chanting.
"Truly we are Blessed. The Carun has brought us a gift beyond compare," said a short gray haired woman. She was dressed in the white robes of a priestess. Her face was lined, but with wisdom rather than age, her blue gray eyes were warm, penetrating deep into Taura's. "If it pleases you Carussa, will you join us?" she asked formally. Darilas turned and nodded. Taura gratefully dismounted and a young boy ran up and took the reins of her horse, his eyes wide with awe.
"Carussa, I am your humble subject, Varan, the High Priestess of Valeus," the woman introduced herself. She extended her hands to offer the Goddess' Blessing to Taura. The new Carussa took her hands and bowed her head as the priestess blessed her.
"Behold Tunonien, the Carussa has returned to us!" Varan shouted joyfully, turning to face the gathering. Loud shouts of joy erupted from them. Taura was stunned; she had not expected the gathering to accept the pronouncement at face value.
"Blasphemy!" roared a voice over the crowd. Taura watched as a frowning man pushed his way roughly toward the front of the gathering. "How dare you call this Outlander," he spat on the ground at the word, " the Carussa!"
"Baclar!" Darilas shouted.
"No Darilas, I will speak, or has the outlander changed the right to challenge?" he asked snidely.
"What's going on?" Taura asked Urra softly, looking between the angry man and Darilas.
"How can the Carussa not speak our tongue?" Baclar turned to face the suddenly nervous and unsure gathering. "How is a soft outlander going to lead us to glory? How can the spawn of a kin slayer be the Carussa? The Holiest of Holy? The Gods do not Bless this! This is Blasphemy!" his words rang angrily in the air. "Darilas is trying to pawn this outlander on us in hopes we turn our eyes from her as she sells our services to the Outlanders!" Taura listened intently as Urra interpreted, she watched as more and more people started to nod their heads in agreement.
"Enough!" her voice carried over the whole gathering. Urra translated, the Tunonien shocked into silence. The air around Taura seemed to crackle with energy; her eyes sparkled and glinted in the afternoon sun. Darilas tried to hide a smile.
"It is true I was not raised a Tunonien. It is true I do not speak your tongue, but I am not soft! And I will lead you, not to Glory and dominion because that is not our Destiny!" Taura said her words burning into the gathering, she had no idea where the words were coming from, and they seemed to be ripped from her. "Our destiny is to die as we protect the Realms of Man from the Dark God. This is our task and was given to us by the God Mirus. Our destiny is to protect the realms from Daimys, if we fail all mankind fails and darkness will rule supreme. That is our destiny!
"Baclar is also correct when he says I do not know your laws, but I do know that my father, Goddess bless his soul, was absolved of any guilt by the Duma in accordance to your laws. Any that question that will answer to me," her voice rang firm and hard, her eyes bored into the gazes of the gathering, a few stepped back from her intense gaze.
"Then by right of Challenge I challenge you Outlander," Baclar spat harshly. Gasps echoed throughout the gathering. The council shared guarded looks. Darilas took Taura's arm.
"What does that mean?" Taura asked.
"He wants to fight you. I suspect he thinks this may be his chance."
"To be Carussa," Darilas supplied absently, her eyes on Varan as the priestess carried on a hurried conversation with other members of the council.
"Well, if he wants it, after all he was raised as a Tunonien," Taura shrugged almost relieved to be passing the reins of power to someone else.
"It is not his right," Darilas hissed angrily, her blue gray eyes flat with anger. Her eyes bored deep into Taura's. The younger woman was taken aback by the anger radiating from Darilas. "His family has been spouting for years this absurd claim that they have blood right to the Attul, the crown of the Carussa. They have been trying for generations to gather support for their claim."
"Do they have blood right?"
"They are distant cousins to the last Carussa."
"Doesn't that give them blood right?"
"You are a descendent of the Carussa's mother's, your claim is stronger, as you have a closer blood tie than he does. Even if you did not wear the Khodr your claim is still stronger," Darilas explained some of the anger fading away.
"He thinks he can shame you and take what is not his. We should have banished the whole te-sudar," growled the usually quiet Urra.
"Why?" Taura was puzzled.
"Because Baclar is the nephew to Zhruk," answered Darilas softly. Taura's eyes widened then narrowed. "He is very much like his uncle."
"I will fight him," Taura stated simply.
"You must not! You have not been trained in the use of your magic, or in the use of your weapons," protested Darilas. She knew how proficient Baclar was.
"I have no choice Darilas. How can I lead if I lose respect now over this challenge? How many Tunonien will leave to support his claim?"
"She is right, Darilas," Urra agreed. Darilas shot him a harsh look. She knew Taura was right but she did not like it.
"You don't know how to use your magic," Darilas tried again.
"I will meet your Challenge Baclar!" Taura called out to the smug man. "On one condition," she paused. "No magic, just sword or staff, your choice." Baclar considered her request.
"Done," he agreed readily. He was secretly relieved; he was not as proficient in magic as he was with the sword or staff. None could best him with either. "I chose staff," he told her, lifting his chin defiantly, cruelly. He liked using his staff; you had to inflict more damage for the victim to die.
"Done," Taura nodded.
"The Challenge has been made and met. Does the Duma agree?" Baclar asked, his eyes never leaving Taura's. They spoke softly before Varan spoke.
"The Duma agrees," she said reluctantly. Baclar's smile widened. He spoke to a man standing next to him. The man ran off and the crowd started moving back, allowing the combatants room.
"Here? Now?" Taura asked looking around.
"Yes Outlander, here and now," Baclar snarled in heavily accented tones. "See, I too can converse with your kind."
"A Challenge has been made and met!" Darilas raised her voice to be heard by all. "Agreed under terms, no magic, to fight with staves. There will be no outside interference they fight to the death! Valeus weeps at the loss of a Chosen one," she finished sadly.
As Taura watched a large circle was drawn in the dirt. Urra explained it was the boundary of the battle. If either went outside the line they would forfeit. The only rules were that neither could use magic and no one outside the circle could help.
"It will be kill or be killed, Carussa," he said softly, a deep sadness in his eyes.
It pained all Tunon that Tunonien blood was to be spilt. The Tunonien would mourn for months after the death of a member. They took each death hard, remembering the words of the God Mirus, knowing that each Tunonien would be necessary.
"We shall see," Taura answered.
She unbuckled her father's sword and gripped the staff lightly and stepped into the newly made circle, eagerly. Baclar's eyes widened then he scowled. As Challenger it was his right to enter the circle first. This Outlander had insulted him he would make her pay.
Baclar glared menacingly at Taura. She returned his look calmly her eyes betraying no emotion. Baclar felt he was looking deep into the mountain and encountered stone. Despite his resolve he felt a chill of apprehension. He took a deep breath and entered the circle.
The two circled each other warily looking for any weakness. Baclar waited for Taura to take the offensive but she waited patiently. Finally, in a burst of impatience Baclar struck out, Taura easily blocked the blow wide and with a lightening quick move struck him soundly in the ribs. The crowd gasped, never had an opponent of Baclar's struck first.
Baclar's eyes dripped hatred. Once again he struck out and once more with a quick flick of her wrist Taura blocked the blow and struck him, this time on the other side. The crowd was amazed. Suddenly Baclar was a blur of motion, the blows almost too quick to follow. Taura backed up giving ground to the grimacing Baclar. Those closest to the circle could tell that none of Baclar's blows came near Taura. Several times the end of Taura's staff would strike him solidly. Any who thought it may be luck were soon believers after a well aimed and timed feint left Baclar stunned and on his back in the dirt.
Taura stepped back and stood looking down at the man who might have been a cousin. She was barely breathing hard and no perspiration dotted her forehead. Taura watched impassively as Baclar clutched his side with a grimace, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Baclar struggled and finally managed to stand somewhat unsteadily.
"Do you yield?" she asked calmly. Pure hatred flashed through Baclar's eyes.
"No, Outlander, I do not yield!" he shouted.
"Suit yourself," she shrugged. Taura waited her feet planted firmly her staff held easily in her hands. Baclar, with a shout charged her, his staff raised over his head almost like a club. With barely a flinch Taura fended off his blows easily, and once more Baclar found himself on the dusty ground.
"Do you yield?" Taura asked again, as Baclar struggled to rise.
"No," Baclar grimaced.
"I have no desire to kill you Baclar, there is no dishonor in yielding," her soft words were quickly translated throughout the crowd.
"I will never yield to you Outlander!" he spat.
Once more he sprang at her finding strength in his anger. He viciously sent blow after blow toward her head. Taura almost carelessly blocked each. Her staff felt almost weightless in her hands as she guided it against Baclar. She could almost hear her father's voice, coaching her, guiding her hands. Taura reacted instinctively and once again Baclar was on the ground, a gash on his temple oozing blood. Taura moved to stand over him, she took the end of her staff and pinned him to the ground, grinding it into his chest.
"I ask you one more time Baclar, do you yield?" Baclar almost sobbed in frustration. Too tired to fight, his vision blurred and his ribs aching he finally nodded. "Good, you are a worthy opponent Baclar. There is much honor in you and your te-sudar."
Darilas nodded in approval, pleased at Taura's skill and in giving Baclar credit. Honor was tantamount to the Tunonien and Taura gave some measure of pride back to Baclar and his te-sudar. Taura would make a wise Carussa. Taura stepped back and offered her hand to Baclar. Reluctantly he accepted her hand.
"Just so you know Outlander," he ground out, "I yield this time!" Taura sadly shook her head.
"I'm sorry to hear that Baclar," Taura turned and began to walk away.
Some inner sense told her of her danger. Turning so fast no one saw her; she met and blocked the blow that had been aimed at her seemingly unprotected head. Baclar's eyes widened in surprise and fear crept into his soul. The blazing anger in her eyes burned its way into his inner being.
"tas'Chamal! tas'Chamal!" No Honor! No Honor! The gathering shouted. "Baclar brings tas'Chamal to his to his te-sudar!"
Taura slowly lowered her staff, her eyes still pinning Baclar. With out a word she turned and walked out of the circle, leaving him standing there. Silence descended over the crowd. As one they sank to the ground and lay their heads to the ground, murmuring the chant to the Carussa, everyone including Darilas and the Duma.
Taura looked around at the gathering of kneeling people that represented only a small portion of the nation of wizard warriors. Sudden power flashed before her as she realized that with the race of wizards to do her bidding she was perhaps the most powerful mortal. Only one other mortal wielded such absolute power, and that mortal sat on the High Blood Throne.
As suddenly as it appeared, the vision disappeared. There was no personal glory here. It was her destiny to lead them all to death. It was her destiny to lead them against the Dark God to keep the other nations of man safe. The enormity of her destiny settled over her, sobering her immediately. Sadly she looked around and knew that soon, everyone here could be dead and she herself would have led them to it.
Slowly the gathered Tunonien rose and surrounded her, all seeming to want to touch her to see for themselves if she was real. Taura stood surrounded by a sea of warriors, chattering like children.
Runners had been sent to the outlaying clans to announce the arrival of the Carussa. All the gathered Tunonien followed Taura around wanting to be helpful as she explored the mountain city. She had been shown to the Mannas, which was the residence of the Carussa, but Taura had declined not to reside there. Taura advised Darilas and the Duma that until she earned her Affan and was crowned with the Attul she would reside in the student's quarters. She had been given a room carved from the mountain, just off one of the main causeways. It was in the section that housed the older students. Her announcement had been greeted with approval by the Duma and Darilas had beamed with pride.
Her quarters were plain yet comfortable. There were tapestries on the wall depicting the Endless Plains and the animal life that lived there and there were soft thick rugs on the stone floor. A single bed was against the back wall made comfortable with a thick mattress and furs. A wooden wardrobe opposite the bed held her clothes. Parchments and books filled a table almost to overflowing. Taura had spent the last few nights reading, mostly the history of the Tunonien, or the Blessed Tribe as they called themselves. She was coming to understand the people surrounding her. The Tunonien were mostly a mystery to the world outside the Plains. To Taura, they were very much like the mountain they called home, sparse, cold, and fierce. But gradually as she came to know them she realized that nothing was farther from the truth. They were warm, colorful and yet no less fierce. They were loyal and believed in the importance of being Tunonien with all their hearts. They were tremendously devout and obeyed without question. They loved to spend quiet time with their families, especially the children. For all their warrior skills they still longed for and lived a simple life. At times Taura felt more of an ornament than a person as her status as Carussa sank into both her and her newly acquired subjects.
She felt uncomfortable at times with the unabashed loyalty and deference they showed her, but Darilas had explained that this was the Tunonien way. The Carussa was the Triad's Blessing in mortal form. She was the closest thing to the Goddess barring the High Priestess. The Carussa was all things to them, protector, leader, mother and sister; they looked to her for all. They were also very excited about her, they asked incessant questions about her life in the Outland as they called it. They had waited a long time for her and they were almost giddy with the excitement of it. Sometimes Taura felt they acted like small children as they all vied for her attention.
For the first few days the only thing that marred the happiness was the departure of Baclar's te-sudar. Baclar had convinced them to go back to their lands on the Plain. Taura had watched them go, knowing that she had not seen the last of Baclar.
"Goddess met, Carussa," a small shy voice interrupted her thoughts.
Taura looked down and saw a young girl, no more than ten passings. Her brownish red hair was short, just starting to grow toward her shoulders. She too had almond shaped gray eyes, very much like Taura's own. The Tunonien were tall with auburn or reddish brown hair, blue gray eyes. High cheekbones and slender noses, with full lips, were the most distinct features. Taura looked at the young girl who looked very much like she herself must of at that age.
"Goddess met," Taura replied smiling. "My name is Taura, what's yours?" the young girl blushed at being so singled out.
"I am Calsie, Carussa," she answered her toe digging into the ground, as she looked shyly at her feet.
"Well Calsie, I am very pleased to meet you," Taura had found the musical language of Tunon very easy for her to master. Darilas had said it was because of her Tunon blood magic. Darilas had been slowly teaching her on their journey to Tunon and since they arrived. For the most part she could speak and follow the conversation as long as the speaker did not speak too fast. "I was on my way to the Temple, would you like to join me? It is time for my offering." Every sixth day an offering was paid to the Triad. Be it something as simple as a flower or a token that was made, or even coin, each person made an offering to the Goddess and her twin brothers, Mirus and Bellus. Calsie's gray eyes widened in surprise before a bright sunny smile lit up her face.
"Thank you Carussa, I would be honored to accompany you."
"The honor Calsie will be mine," Taura grinned down at the young girl. The two made their way toward the causeway that would take them past the Mannus and to the Temple of the Triad. On the way, Taura gently questioned the girl and by the time they had reached the temple she had learned the name of Calsie's horse and the names of her immediate family. The young girl was chattering away as they entered the temple. The conversation picked up once again after they emerged from the temple.
Taura looked around as they walked along the causeway and Calsie chatted about everything that was important to her. She realized that Tunon was not the endless Plain that stretched farther than the eye could see. Tunon was the mountain. The small mountain range that sat in the center of the Plain was really the heart of Tunon. It sat immobile, implacable, and constant, much like the Tunonien themselves. It symbolized how they viewed themselves. That view was not much different than how the rest of the world viewed them. The Tunonien fascinated Taura.
"Carussa, forgive my intrusion," a warm voice broke into Calsie's. Taura looked up to see Kerin. S he had met the woman the night before. Kerin was to be one of her instructors once she began her studies. Kerin's blue gray eyes were warm as they looked at Taura.
"Kerin, it's all right."
"Carussa, Darilas-Carun has sent me to escort you to her chambers, your family has arrived," the pronouncement stunned Taura. A nervous fluttering began in the pit of her stomach. After the murder of her parents by her brother Anel, she had thought herself an orphan, now she would meet relatives she had never known existed.
"Kerin, thank you," she turned to Calsie. "Forgive me Calsie, but I must take my leave of you. I very much enjoyed our talk. Thank you for accompanying me to the temple."
"The honor was mine Carussa," Calsie bowed.
It was a bow reserved strictly for the Carussa. They bowed at the waist and touched first their heart then their forehead, signifying, according to Darilas, that the Carussa was the heart and the head of Tunon. Taura liked that one better than the one where they would fall as one to their knees, their weapons on either side of them and touch their heads to the earth only lifting their heads at their Carussa's command. With a deep breath Taura nodded to the waiting Kerin and followed her to the large residence of the Carun.
Taura stopped and stared at the entrance to Darilas' residence. Her heart was pounding in her chest and her palms were sweaty. She could not remember when she was last so nervous. Even when she first entered Tunon to see the gathered clans she was not as nervous. This was much more personal. Kerin gently touched her forearm, her eyes warm and understanding.
"Carussa, all will be well," she said softly. Taura looked at her and smiled slightly. Taura took a deep breath and entered the residence. Voices drifted to her from the left. She took another deep breath she moved to the large chamber where the Carun held audience. Taura stopped in the doorway and looked into room.
Standing in the center talking softly to Darilas were seven people. An elderly woman that still stood tall, a man slightly older than Darilas, but looked very much like her. Taura thought he might be Darilas' brother, her father's brother, Doran. There were four Tunonien close to Taura's own age, but it was the seventh that caused Taura to gasp. Standing next to Darilas and smiling at something one of the younger Tunonien was saying was a woman. The woman's curly auburn hair was the same deep burnished color as Taura's. Her gray eyes were the same shade as Taura's and their features were similar enough to pass as mother and daughter. Tears sprang to Taura's eyes as she looked at the mirror image of her mother. The woman, as if sensing eyes on her turned her head, her eyes meeting Taura's. Time seemed to stand still for Taura as she and the woman looked at each other. It was almost as if she was looking into her mother's eyes again. Eyes that she had never expected to see again. Silence descended into the room as the other occupants realized that Taura had entered.
"Welcome Taura," Darilas said breaking the silence and the eye contact between Taura and the other woman. Darilas moved to Taura, taking her hand and bringing her into the room. She had purposely called Taura by her name rather than her title, for this was family. "Please let me introduce you to your family." Darilas gently lead her to the elderly woman; her reddish brown hair was liberally sprinkled with gray. Her blue gray eyes were the same shade as her fathers.
"Taura, this is your father's mother, my mother Rayma. Mother may I present to you, your son's daughter Taura," she introduced softly. Tears pooled in Rayma's eyes as she gazed at her son's daughter.
"Goddess met Taura," Rayma said her voice husky with unshed tears. Her hands veined with age, reached out and gripped Taura's in a surprisingly strong grasp. "You look so much like your mother but I do see some of Gelen in you as well, girl."
"Goddess met, Rayma," answered Taura, somewhat awkwardly, not sure what she should call the woman. Rayma's eyes raked almost hungrily over Taura.
"Please child, I would be honored if you called me Noemi, grandmother." Tears came to Taura's eyes again and she nodded.
"I would like that," she paused. "Noemi." Rayma smiled brightly, her wrinkles almost disappearing. She gathered Taura into her arms and held her close, each giving into the tears that had threatened to fall earlier. Rayma stepped back and held Taura at arms length looking her over one more time.
"Taura, I would like to present you to my son Doran, your uncle," Rayma said turning to the man who stood next to her. He was tall and had a thicker body than either Darilas or her father, but it was easy to see they were related.
"Goddess met Taura," his voice was low, but his eyes were warm and also contained a hint of tears.
"Goddess met, Doran," Taura answered. With a small cry Doran took Taura into his arms for a fierce embrace, tears now coming almost in sobs as he held his beloved brothers child. He finally stepped back and wiped his tears from his eyes almost roughly.
"Mother is right, you do have a look of Gelen about you. Tell me please, was he happy?" he almost choked on emotion.
"My parents were very happy together Uncle. They loved each other deeply and showed that to my brother and I frequently. I wish that happiness on myself and all others."
"He loved Maura very much."
"That he did Uncle, as well as my brother and I, he often told us we made his life worth living."
"I miss him, he was the best of men," Doran once more brushed tears away again.
"Yes he was," Taura agreed sadly. Doran nodded, before turning to the two younger Tunonien next to him. They looked to be a few passings older than Taura.
"Niece, may I present my children, Sajgo," he indicated the young man closest to him, a tall lean Tunonien with laughing blue gray eyes. "And my daughter, Cayne," he smiled at the young woman. She smiled impishly and crinkled her nose at Taura. Taura liked her instantly. They shared a few words and a hug before Darilas turned Taura to woman standing patiently, the other two young Tunonien standing on either side of her.
"Taura, may I present to you your mother's twin, Kayla," Darilas introduced. Taura and Kayla looked at each other, devouring each other's features. Taura was looking at her mother and Kayla was looking at her sister at twenty passings. No words were spoken, as each was unsure as to what to say. Tears came to Taura's eyes once more and threatened to break through. With tears of her own Kayla opened her arms wide and with a sob Taura fell into her embrace. They held each other tight, tears falling and soft words being spoken between them. The others watched the raw emotion, with tears of their own. Kerin took that moment to withdraw from the intensely private moment.
"I'm sorry Kayla," Taura said softly once the embrace was broken, her eyes downcast. Kayla smiled and gently raised Taura's chin so that they were looking at each other. Love for her sister's child shone thru in her eyes.
"No matter, keile," Kayla said with a smile. Fresh tears came to Taura's eyes at the pet name her mother had called her. It meant, roughly, little one.
"My mother used to call me that," she whispered. "I didn't mean to cry, you look so much like her."
"I know we are twins, she and I. You look very much like her as well. She was happy was she not?"
"Very much so, Kayla, very much so. She spoke of you. I know she missed you." Kayla smiled and fought the fresh wave of tears.
"Thank you Taura." Taura nodded in acknowledgement. "Taura, let me introduce my children, Salis," she pointed to the young woman to her right. A somber redhead, her blue eyes soft. "And Geni," she pointed to the other young woman.
Both were close to Taura's age. Geni was shorter and sturdier than either Taura or her sister Salis. Her gray eyes were warm as they gazed back at Taura. Taura realized how much she had missed by not growing up surrounded by family as she looked around at the gathered people.
"I am very honored to meet you all," Taura said encompassing them all.
"Come, a meal has been prepared," Darilas said with a smile. She led them to the dining chamber.
After the meal, which was eaten in silence, the afternoon passed quickly for the family as they all got acquainted with each other. Taura was kept laughing with anecdotes of her father and mother as they were growing up. Taura found much to her delight that her cousins were all to resume their studies at the Zariet. She hoped they would be able to spend more time together. She also found that Cayne's wicked sense of humor was very much like her brother's. Taura missed laughing with her brother; at one time they had been very close. Which made his betrayal hurt all the more. She pushed such unpleasant thoughts away. But they were brought back to the forefront when Doran asked how her parents had died.
Haltingly, and with great pain, she recounted the events from the time she made her way down the mountain, to the time she found her parents murdered, their hearts cut out. Fresh tears fell as the fate of their beloved kin was told.
"Varan has assured me that the Goddess herself escorted their souls to Bellus, that the Soul Stealer did not get their souls. I hope and pray to the Triad that that is true," Taura finished softly.
"If Varan has said this, then it is true," Solis imparted. During the afternoon, Taura learned that Solis intended to join the Temple after her studies at the Zariet were completed. Taura could see that it would be a good choice for the somber, devout woman. There was an aura of goodness around her, which seemed to follow all priestesses. The others gave their agreement and all made the sign of the Triad. Taura though thought privately to herself that she wished she could believe.
After the meal, Darilas informed Taura that the Duma was expecting them. Reluctantly the others bid their leave. Taura watched them depart sadness in her eyes. Once again she was reminded of all that she had missed out on and all that she had lost with the death of her parents.
"Has there been any word from Baclar's te-sudar?" Taura asked as she and Darilas made their way toward the council chambers.
"No formal word from them. We know they are holding council. The clan is split. Most want to come back, a few want to find support for Baclar's claim. I think most left because of the shame Baclar brought on them by attacking after yielding."
"I see," Taura said softly, her mind turning over the problem. "Send someone to their elders, let them know that we hold no ill will toward them. That no honor was lost and we wish for them to return." Darilas nodded, pleased with Taura's decision. She believed that Taura would make a wise leader. "We can not allow this portion of the Prophesy to come to pass, I am not ready yet." The two made their way to the council chamber in silence.
"We have heard from Baclar," Varan told the other gathered members of the council.
The chamber was a large room with a low table and comfortable benches with padded seats and backs circled it. The council was seated with Taura at the head of the table, Darilas to her right and Varan to her left. During the council meetings she had attended so far, Taura had been content to sit and listen, very rarely voicing her opinion unless asked. Taura secretly felt that the council considered her a figurehead; that they were not ready or willing to release the power they had wielded for so many years. Taura did not tell them she had no desire to absolve the council, they served their purpose still.
"And?" demanded Bivin, a member of the council. He was a rangy man, his hands and knuckles gnarled and swollen at times. The pain in his hands made him curt and grim.
"They are holding council, we feel they may wish to hold council with us."
"They can't be serious!" Bivin was aghast. Murmurs rose up from the others.
"This will not be allowed," insisted Muria, a priestess, others agreed.
"If they wish to hold council, we will let them speak," Taura imparted softly, stunning them to silence. "I wish to send someone to them, to advise them they are welcome to return, that Baclar's behavior in no way reflects upon them, that no honor was lost."
"Carussa is this wise?" Bivin questioned, his normal scowl deeper.
"It will not hurt to hear them, we can not afford to lose even one Tunonien if we are to prevail in the Antranik," she told them.
Taura had been spending a lot of time reading about the Prophesy that shaped the very lives of the Tunonien. Her response to Darilas when the other commented on her studies was how could she lead if she did not know. The council members looked at each other.
"But, Carussa," began Timre, a short man by Tunonien standards, standing barely six feet tall. His shoulders though were powerfully built and he was a master with the staff. It grew still as he dared to question the Carussa.
"But?" asked Taura softly, her gray eyes pinning Timre. She knew they had reached a crossroads. She had to assert the power they had given her, or she would never be able to wield it with authority. Taura hardly recognized her self after all the changes she had undergone since coming down off the mountain.
"It will be as you request Carussa," Darilas finally said into the silence. The others nodded their assent. Taura relaxed and let the council matters continue around her.
Taura was not sure what expected of the Zariet. She had thought it would be like the school she attended in Demos and was surprised when she was not confronted with a classroom. Kerin came to her chambers early just after the sun had Arisen. The Plains of Tunon were dry but the nights and early mornings were very cool and Taura was loath to get up. But Kerin waited patiently with a smile. As they walked to the academy, following quite a few other young Tunonien Kerin told Taura that she was to be her, khair, or guide. She was to be the primary teacher, escorting her to all lessons and guide her throughout.
Taura was to start at the very beginning with the youngest of all the students. Having grown up not knowing she had magic she was very much behind the others her age. They would be earning their Affan next season and Taura set a personal goal to be able to join them. Her cousins Geni, Solis and Cayne would all earn their Affan then.
Kerin lead her to a practice field. The field was empty save for four imposing Tunonien. Kerin told her they were the Kaden, or masters. They were going to test her abilities, one for staff, one for sword and one for hand-to-hand fighting and one for magic. Taura was nervous as she entered the ring.
"Carussa, it is our honor to teach you. I am Jeral," the tallest of the four introduced himself. "This is Aliff, Gefion, and Disla," he pointed to each in turn, another man and two women. They bowed to Taura, who nodded her head in response. She had agonized for hours on how she should respond to the bow, finally settling on a nod in reconigition.
"To start with, while here at Zariet you will be addressed only as cavana, student. We will address you as such. You in turn will address us as Kaden, master. All other instructors are to be addressed as Navas. Are we clear cavana?" Jeral asked.
"Yes, Kaden," Taura answered with a nod.
"Good, we will start with staff. You will spar with Aliff," he indicated the woman standing next him. She stepped forward her staff held easily in her hand. Taura stepped away from Kerin and watched and waited for Aliff to make a move.
The remaining three Kaden watched intently as the two women sparred. Their voices were soft as they pointed out matters of interest. Kerin looked on a soft smile on her face as Taura held her own against Aliff. The gathered masters were taken aback when Taura managed to take Aliff's weapon from her. Aliff was stunned for a moment before she picked her staff up. Kerin looked away to hide her grin.
"Thank you Aliff, cavana that will enough," Jeral said finally. Aliff was breathing heavily, but Taura was not. To Kerin it looked as if Taura had held back a little, so as not to show up the master. "Your next task will be the sword," Jeral himself stepped up and drew his sword. Taura handed her staff to Kerin.
Once more the masters stood and watched, talking amongst themselves as the two combatants circled each other. Back and forth, neither seemed to gain the advantage. The sound of steel against steel filled the morning air. As with Aliff, Taura managed to unarm the master. Kerin barely choked back a laugh at the incredulous look on Jeral's face. He picked up his sword and continued. Jeral called a halt and gestured for Aliff to join him. The two battled with Taura, and once again could gain no advantage as she managed to fend them both off. Finally Jeral called a halt and the two masters stepped back
"cavana, you will now face Gefion, in hand combat," Jeral managed, his breathing ragged. Taura nodded, still not having broken a sweat. After years of hard work on the farm she was in excellent shape. Gefion stepped forward. He was the largest of the four, standing close to seven feet tall, with broad shoulders and large hands. Taura did not so much as blink as he stepped up. She blocked out everything from her mind as she tried to imagine herself in front of her home, her father's words in her ear, her opponent her brother.
Gefion had the advantage of strength and size, but Taura was quicker, and she managed to stay out of his grasp. She did manage to drop Gefion from his feet twice and keep his blows from her, blocking easily. Kerin could tell the masters were amazed at Taura's skill. She herself was not, having heard of the skill of her father Gelen. He would have been Carun had he not had to kill his wife's first husband. Jeral called a stop to the fight.
"Disla will now test your magic," he intoned.
Taura nodded and stood up straight. This was the one area that she was unsure about. Taura was almost afraid. She had never thought of having magic before. Taura almost half hoped that she didn't, even though the events on her journey with Ehlan when she had healed both Ehlan and Joli belied her desire. She also remembered the fight along the road, the night she and Ehlan had kissed for the first time, when her sword had been engulfed with a white glow that had struck her assailants like lightening. Taura took a deep breath and waited for the smaller of the two women to approach.
Disla approached slowly her eyes studying Taura intently. Taura swallowed and forcibly pushed thoughts of Ehlan aside and watched warily. Disla walked around Taura studying her from all angles. It was silent as Disla walked around her the masters all watching intently. Suddenly Disla jumped at Taura, her hands gripping Taura's head in a painful grip. Taura gasped as white-hot pain shot through her head, her hands going to Disla's. A cry was torn from her throat as she tried to pull away from Disla. The master's eyes were closed her mouth moving silently. A white glow began to form around the two, getting brighter and brighter, until the on lookers had to shield their eyes. Energy crackled in the air as Taura fought harder. Impossibly the white glow began to burn even brighter and hotter. The others could feel the heat radiating from the light, scorching the air around them. Suddenly with a ripping sound Disla came hurling through the air to fall at Jeral's feet. The glow disappeared suddenly and Taura fell to her knees retching. Kerin momentarily shocked, rushed to Taura. The masters stood in awe before attending to their fallen member.
"Taura are you all right?" Kerin asked her voice full of concern. Taura managed to nod.
"What was that?" she asked her voice ragged.
"That was the Kedroe," Kerin answered. "It is how they test how strong your magic is. It must be done when your defenses are down. The Kaden links with you and merges her magic with yours. You are very strong my Carussa, never before have I seen the Kedroe glow so bright, nor have I ever seen a cavana break the hold," Kerin's voice was filled with awe. Taura tried to nod but slumped to the ground, her legs too weak to hold her up any longer.
"Kerin," came Jeral's voice. Kerin looked up to see the four masters approach; their eyes were troubled as they looked down at their fallen Carussa. Their concern was very evident.
"She is very weak Jeral, but she will be fine." The others looked relieved.
"Please take her back to her chambers, there will be no more for her today. Tomorrow, we will begin," he told her.
He looked down at Taura, looking as if he was about to say something but changed his mind. Looking preoccupied the four Kaden left the field. Kerin watched them go, before reaching around Taura's shoulders and helped her to her feet.
Taura awoke much later with a blinding headache. She groaned and moved, her stomach rebelling. Someone handed her a deep bowl and she retched noisily. With another groan she fell back.
"I'm going to die, aren't I?" she asked the person. A soft chuckle greeted her.
"No keile, you are not going to die," Kayla said her voice warm. Taura sat up suddenly, almost retching again from the pain in her head. "Careful Taura, you don't want to get sick again."
"Aunt, I, uh, I'm sorry I didn't expect you," floundered Taura. Kayla's face fell and she backed up.
"Forgive me Carussa, I did not mean to intrude," she said her face pale, stepping closer to the doorway. Taura rose from the bed, reaching out to her aunt.
"No, please, you are not intruding, forgive me for sounding so harsh. Please stay," her eyes pleaded with her aunt. Kayla looked at her before nodding solemnly.
"Please Carussa, you must sit, you are still unwell."
"Aunt, please call me Taura," she told her aunt.
"But you are the Carussa. It would be unseemly to call you anything else."
"I am not always the Carussa. And right now I would really like to be just your niece," her eyes were sad. Kayla looked at her, studying her, before nodding and moving back into the room.
"Please Taura, please sit back down. You are unwell."
"How long have I been asleep?" she asked as she gratefully sank back down onto the bed. Kayla moved a chair over to the bed and sat down.
"Just over an hour."
"I feel so weak, and my head hurts."
"I can give you something for the headache, but only rest will take the weakness away. All of Tunon is speaking of you Taura."
"Again?" she asked with a rueful chuckle. Kayla chuckled as well.
Taura's heart constricted, the sound so reminiscent of her mother's. Kayla patted her hand and went to the table that held a pitcher of water and some cups. She poured some water into a cup and mixed in a small packet of herbs. Stirring it she brought it over to the bed. Carefully Kayla helped Taura drink the mixture.
"Yes again," Kayla said putting the cup aside. "All are talking of the Kedroe, Taura. We are all in awe of you."
"Again?" she quipped. Kayla laughed.
"Yes, you have done something not even a Kaden or the Carun can do. You broke the hold of the Kedroe. That has never been done. You have great magic Taura, strong magic, perhaps the strongest of all. The Kaden want to put you in a Circle."
"Why?" Taura was puzzled.
"A Circle is made up of nine of our strongest. They will link with each other then link with you. They want to see just how strong you are. They are all terribly excited."
"Why?" she asked again.
"No one Tunonien has ever been as strong as you seem to be Taura. There will be nothing you could not do magically," Kayla answered with a smile. "You may very well be the strongest Tunonien ever."
"I see," she said slowly her eyes looking at the wall opposite her, her thoughts elsewhere. "I guess that would be a good thing then."
"A very good thing Taura. Remember, every Tunonien counts and every skill is needed," Kayla said softly, repeating the mantra of the Tunonien.
"I don't remember anything after the first pain. I had never felt such pain in my life Aunt," she shuddered at the remembered pain slicing through her. "All I remember is being encompassed by this blinding pain and all I wanted was for it to stop. The next thing I knew I was on the ground and Kerin was talking to me."
"Your magic did your bidding and made it stop. You broke the hold."
"But I don't know how."
"No matter, your magic still did your bidding," Kayla shrugged. Taura sighed and lay back fully on the bed, the pain in her head easing slightly.
"Sleep now little one," Kayla said softly. She watched as her beloved sister's child fell into a deep sleep.
Taura woke up slowly. She lay unmoving, her eyes staring at the ceiling. The first thing she realized was that her head no longer hurt and her stomach no longer rebelled. Blinking a few times to chase away the sleep she stretched, enjoying the feeling of muscles and tendons stretching tautly. Taura pushed aside the blanket and stood. She noticed the room was empty. Taura made her way to the doorway and looked out. She was puzzled by the sight of two guards on either side of the doorway. Taura was surprised to see the sun rising. She had slept the whole day. Her stomach suddenly growled reminding her that she had not eaten in sometime.
"Carussa, may I be of assistance?" asked a guard. Taura smiled in welcome.
"Yes, please, I would like a morning meal." The guard nodded and bowed, touching first heart then head. "And a bath please."
Taura had just finished dressing after her bath when her morning meal arrived. She thanked the servants and sat at her table, breathing deep the fragrant aroma of tolaz.
"Goddess met, Taura," greeted a voice from the doorway. Taura turned and smiled at Kerin.
"Goddess met, Kerin. Please come in. I was just about to have my morning meal, would you like to join me?" she asked. Kerin smiled and entered.
"It would be my honor, Carussa."
"Kerin, uh, excuse me, khair, it would be my honor."
"Carussa, please call me Kerin when we are away from the Zariet," Kerin requested sitting down opposite Taura at the table.
"Only if you will do the same."
"You want me to call you Kerin? Alright," Kerin shrugged before flashing a grin at Taura.
"Silly, call me Taura," she laughed. Kerin caught her breath at the sound.
The two lapsed into silence as they ate their meal. It was a tradition in Taura's household that she found to be from her parents Tunonien upbringing. It was a companionable silence. Each was very much content with each other's company. Taura was surprised to realize that for the first time since leaving Ehlan she felt completely relaxed. It gave her hope that soon she would be able to push Ehlan completely from her thoughts. After the meal they sat and sipped warm cups of tolaz. The evenings and mornings could be very cool in Tunon.
"I understand that the Kaden wish to put me in a circle," commented Taura.
"Yes, I am to bring you to the arena."
"My aunt explained to me what they hope to do."
"You have been all the talk in Tunon. The Kaden were amazed at your abilities yesterday. They are unsure if they will be able to teach you anything. You have far surpassed most students already."
"What about magic? I know nothing of magic."
"Well, that is the one area where you do need to be taught. They are concerned though about your age," Kerin frowned looking down into the warm cup in her hand.
"Why?" Taura was curious.
"Most Tunonien start learning to master their magic at an early age, ten or so. You are much older than that and they fear you will have a harder time learning to control yours."
"Why is that?" Kerin took a sip of her tolaz before answering.
"Our magic grows with us. As small children our magic is very little. But as our bodies grow so does our abilities. We learn to control our magic in small stages when it is not too strong for us. But you have never learned to control your magic, your magic is almost fully developed and you are but a babe."
"Hardly a baby, Kerin," Taura teased smiling. Kerin smiled back her heart skipping a beat at the sight of Taura's smile.
"In some matters you are still but a babe Taura," Kerin replied softly, her blue gray eyes burning into Taura's. Taura felt a pull of attraction in the pit of her stomach, surprising her. She lowered her eyes first.
"Is this going to be a problem?"
"We do not know yet Taura." The two lapsed once more into silence.
"Goddess met, Taura," came Darilas' voice, breaking the silence.
The two women turned in the direction of the door. Taura, catching sight of Darilas smiled brightly, her entire face lighting up in pleasure. Kerin vowed to herself to receive such a smile from Taura.
"Goddess met, Darilas, please come in."
"Kerin," greeted Darilas with a nod.
As Taura studied her aunt she was surprised that she had never noticed the similarities between Darilas and her father Gelen. They both held their head the same way, the shade of their blue gray eyes was the same. Darilas' auburn hair was lightly sprinkled with gray but was still a vibrant shade. She smiled again, affection for the other woman filling her heart. As she watched Darilas shot a cold look at Kerin. Taura looked between the two women not understanding the sudden tension in the room.
"Kerin is to be my khair," Taura said into the silence. "She has come to escort me to the arena," Taura supplied unsure why she wanted to explain the other woman's presence in her chamber. Kerin gave her a small smile, her eyes understanding and full of secret mirth.
"I see," was all that Darilas said. The silence grew longer and the tension almost palpable between Darilas and Kerin, Taura was puzzled by it. "Carussa, the circle is ready, please allow me to escort you to the arena," Darilas finally said. Kerin opened her mouth to speak but Darilas gave her a steely look and Kerin said nothing.
"All right. Kerin, thank you for joining me in my morning meal."
"The honor is mine," Kerin said softly before bowing. She nodded to Darilas before leaving. Taura was frowning.
"Is there a problem Darilas?"
"Not at all Carussa," Darilas replied. The Carun fell silent and frowned, looking much like Gelen to Taura. "She looks at you as a woman, not as her student or her Carussa," Darilas said finally.
"So? I would like her to be my friend and if all she sees is a student or the Carussa then that will never happen."
"Ehlan is your friend."
"Darilas," Taura's face paled at the mention of the Queen's name. "Ehlan is not my friend," she said softly, pain evident on her face. "Come, let's get this circle thing out of the way." She brushed past Darilas and left her chamber. Darilas followed with a thoughtful frown on her face.
The arena was full to bursting when Taura approached it. Darilas had explained that word had spread quickly of her feat from the day before and everyone wanted to witness such a thing for them selves. The arena was built from the side of the stone mountain. Seats were carved from the rock all the way to the top along three sides of the arena floor. At one end a large stone platform with steps leading up to it held the Circle. Taura entered the arena with Darilas walking behind her. The crowd roared as she entered, chanting Carussa. The sound was deafening. Taura was overwhelmed as she looked around.
"Taura-cavana you have been summoned to face the Circle," Jeral's voice sounded, once the crowd had settled down.
"Yes Kaden," Taura answered. She tried to take everything in.
"Enter the arena cavana," Jeral told her sternly.
Once she entered completely she stood alone in the center of the arena. Taura watched as eight Kaden came down the steps and joined Darilas. They surrounded her their eyes emotionless. She turned completely around in the circle facing each, unsure what was going to happen.
The Circle joined hands and began to chant softly, words too low for Taura to catch or understand. A soft green glow began to envelope their clasped hands. Taura felt her heart start to pound; she had seen very little magic since arriving in Tunon. The sight of it both thrilled and frightened her. The chant began to get louder and the glow got brighter, enveloping even more of the Circle. Taura moved around in the Circle looking at each, trying to be ready for what ever was to happen.
Taura was totally unprepared for the link. The green light fully encompassed the Circle, and as she watched wide eyed a thin line moved from the Circle to her, hitting her chest and sliding deep into her soul with a chilling touch. She gasped at the cool sting of it. Her head fell back and she stared unseeing into the sky.
Taura lost all sense of time, as she seemed to float outside of herself. She looked down and saw the Circle around her, all connected by the now pulsating green glow. Taura had no emotion as she watched her body jerk in response to the glow seeping deeper into her.
"My daughter, you are troubled by all this, " came a soft feminine voice over her shoulder. She felt the loving presence she had sensed during the ritual before entering Tunon.
"Yes, my Goddess," she answered knowing who it was who spoke to her.
"This is all overwhelming we know, but you are worthy of it."
"But I don't feel I am Goddess. What if I am not really the One?" she asked her eyes still dispassionately watching. The Goddess chuckled fondly.
"My child you are the One. Do you think we would make such a mistake?"
"No Goddess, I suppose not," Taura sighed. "I guess I have no choice but to allow my destiny to guide me?"
"Child, our destiny guides us but we do have a choice to take that road or not."
"Even you my Goddess?"
"Even the Gods are guided by destiny my child. I see though that your heart is still heavy."
"I am frightened my Goddess."
"We are all afraid my child. There is no dishonor in being afraid. The only dishonor is giving in to that fear. You are the One my child and you must give yourself to your destiny."
"I have no choice. If I do not then Daimys wins."
"We all have choices like I said previously my child," The Goddess' voice was amused. Taura sighed again her eyes watching as the arms of her body stretched out to her sides, her head still back, her face contorted in pain. "My child know that my brothers and I are always watching and you have our Blessing in all that you do. Learn well my child," with that the Goddess' presence disappeared as silently as it came.
With a rush, Taura found herself back in her body, feeling the current of magic as it coursed through her. Her hair tingled practically on end, her skin prickled with the current. Every nerve ending in her body was alive and thrumming with power as the magic in her combined with the circle. Slowly a white light began to envelope the green glow, dimming the brightness from the glow as it receded into the white light. Taura could not hear the gasps of surprise that rippled throughout the arena.
She gritted her teeth against the pain and pressure that was building up in her head. It was much more intense than she had felt yesterday. Taura felt as if something was crawling under skin, burrowing deep inside. The white light fully enveloped those in the circle, the green glow completely gone. The light began to pulse and the light grew brighter, much brighter than the sun shining down. Suddenly in a cacophony of silence the light imploded and the Circle fell to their knees almost as one. Taura stood her arms outstretched fists clenched, her head thrown back, her hair streaming down her back. The arena was dead silent. She lowered her arms and opened her eyes. Taura blinked in surprise at the fallen Circle as they lay at her feet, most pale and gasping for air, one having fainted. Chants of Carussa began slowly, softly before gaining strength. Taura stood tall, her burnished hair gleaming in the sun, the Circle at her feet, the Tunonien in the arena standing, her name a chorus of echoes in the air.
Ehlan sat on the High Blood Throne, the crown weighing heavily on her brow as she listened to the ambassador from a small kingdom across the Hyxa Sea. He was droning on about the merits of renegotiating a treaty between the High Blood Throne and his kingdom. Ehlan knew that the treaty had just been renegotiated between him and her mother the former Queen. He was the latest in a long ling of ambassadors that had tried to break treaties hoping for a better one with Ehlan. Unfortunately for this ambassador Ehlan's patience was at an end.
"Enough," she finally said cutting him off in mid sentence. "The treaty stands."
"But, if I might say Your Majesty," he began.
"Enough I say. There will be no further discussion. Tell your King he can either abide by the treaty signed by the Queen Mother or you can leave at once and there will be further trade within the six kingdoms. Further, ships will patrol the waters so no ship from your island will leave your waters," the ambassadors face drained of color. "Have I made myself clear?" Ehlan bit out, her eyes flashing.
The ambassador nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
"Good, you have our permission to withdraw." He bowed deeply and left the throne room. Ehlan waited till he was at the door before standing, her face a thundercloud. "I am done for the day," she announced to her steward. A nervous little man, he looked at the parchment in his hand, the list of petitioners for the day, wisely he nodded. One look at her face convinced him that it was in his best interests to dismiss those waiting.
Ehlan left the throne room by a private entrance and stormed to the royal apartments. After she had ascended the throne she had had the apartments completely redone. She wanted no reminders of her mother and her betrayal. Her thoughts were on her mother and the unborn child the former Queen carried as she entered the apartment.
"My what a face," teased Baran, seeing the angry expression. Her guard silently placed themselves at outside the door upon seeing Baran in attendance.
"Yes it is," she snapped. Ehlan threw the crown on an empty chair, followed by her ceremonial robes. She stood feeling more comfortable in her black breeches and loose linen shirt. "Don't you have anything better to do than to sit there and watch me?" she snarled angrily at him.
"No, as a matter of fact, I don't," he answered calmly, sitting down at a small table.
The table held a wine jug and two goblets. He poured a glass for each of them. With a glare at her Bonded Companion she threw herself into the chair opposite him and drained the glass. Baran refilled it with out asking and patiently waited.
"I am sick of the way they try to take advantage of me. They act like I don't have a brain in my head," she complained.
"They are testing you. They know you've been away a long time and they are not sure how much you know about sitting on the High Blood Throne."
"More fool them, since I was raised to do this. It is just so frustrating! And of course all the fences I have to mend with the six kingdoms," Ehlan sipped her wine slowly this time, her eyes looking unseeing into the fireplace.
"Your mother did you no favors there," he commented dryly. The two fell silent as they sipped their wine. "Have you talked with Serina yet?" he asked after a moment. Ehlan stiffened.
"No, not yet. I have been waiting until things are stabilized between myself and the lower thrones." The two fell silent again. Baran could tell there was more bothering her. Ehlan sighed heavily.
"I feel so chained here Baran!" Ehlan finally blurted out. "I know this is what I have wanted since childhood, but I never imagined it to be so confining," she complained. Ehlan wanted that thrill of excitement that she felt when on the road with Taura. She had never felt so alive before. "And I miss Taura," she said softly. Baran nodded knowingly. Ehlan drained her glass.
"Ah, I see," he replied reaching over to refill her glass.
"She could have sent word. I know she should have reached Tunon by now."
"What? Did she send word to you?" demanded Ehlan turning her angry gaze at Baran.
His dark eyes remained expressionless. His lips twitched as he tried to keep a smile from his face. Ehlan studied his features. His dark gleaming eyes, his short midnight colored hair that hugged his head like a helmet, his sleek black mustache that sat over his lips, his olive toned skin. Baran was a handsome man.
"Darilas sent word when they reached Tunon. They arrived safely but they did encounter some Niam patrols. I received it today."
"Why was I not informed?" asked the High Queen imperiously.
"I am informing you now," Baran pointed out unperturbed by her tone.
"Such insolence from a man who is about to get his throat cut," growled Ehlan.
Baran's head fell back and he laughed deeply. Ehlan looked at him with affection. He turned to smile at her revealing his strong white teeth under his glossy black mustache. His bronze skin was slightly flushed and his dark eyes glittered. Ehlan could not help but grin back at him.
"She didn't send a message did she?" Ehlan asked softly, her eyes on the goblet in her hand, she was almost afraid of the answer.
"No," his answer was soft. Ehlan kept her head down, hoping to hide the hurt.
"I asked her to stay and she refused."
"No one has ever refused me Baran."
"She has a destiny to follow Ehlan, just as you do."
"I know. But why can't we fulfill our destinies together?" she asked looking at him, her eyes revealing the depth of her hurt.
"The Goddess works in strange ways," Ehlan snorted indelicately at Baran's answer. "Well, it is true!" he laughed.
"I know," she sighed. "The High Council is pushing me to have a child."
"Already?" he was surprised.
"Yes, they say that if war with Niam really is approaching then an heir must be had. To insure the crown of course."
"They are right," Baran agreed.
"I didn't want the crown to become a brood mare!"
"Until there is an heir, that is exactly what you are," Baran shrugged and refilled their goblets once again.
"Whose side are you on anyway?" Ehlan asked grumpily.
"Yours of course, but the fact remains that producing an heir is your primary responsibility."
"Producing an heir is not my primary responsibility," Ehlan disagreed. Noticing that the jug of wine was almost empty, she pulled the tasseled rope hanging near her to summon a servant.
"Yes my dear, it is. You have to ensure succession, then you can do everything else."
"It was so much easier being Heir Princess," she grumbled. Baran laughed delightedly. A serving woman entered the room curtseying after she approached the table.
"We would like more wine, and food," Ehlan ordered carelessly not even looking at the servant. Baran's eyes shot to the girl as she made her way back to the door. A look of distaste was on the servant's face.
"You know you should not treat them like that," he commented.
"Who?" asked Ehlan looking up bewildered.
"The servants, the guards, all of them," Baran waved a hand, indicating the entire castle.
"Like their only purpose is life is to fulfill your every need. They are people with feelings."
"Now you are starting to sound just like Taura."
"Taura is a wise woman. There may come a time when they will have to fight to protect you. Do you want them to do it for love or duty?" he asked looking at her intently.
"Aren't they one and the same?" she quipped.
"No, Ehlan, they are not," he sighed. "They are not."
The two once more lapsed into silence, each sipping their wine again. A few moments later the serving girl entered. Another jug of wine and a platter of meat, cheese and bread were balanced on a large tray. She seemed to almost struggle with the weight of it. Ehlan looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. The Queen jumped to her feet.
"Let me help you," she told the shocked young woman, as she reached for the tray.
"No, Your Majesty, tis my job," she concurred her eyes wide and her voice small.
"That's okay, I won't tell," Ehlan smiled, revealing an appealing dimple in her right cheek. The young woman was speechless. She allowed the Queen to help her empty the tray onto the table. With a deep curtsey the woman scurried away, a speculative look on her face.
"Was that better?" she asked impishly.
"Much," agreed Baran.
The next morning Ehlan woke with a slight headache. She and Baran had finished three jugs of red wine and she did not remember going to bed. Ehlan could see someone moving around the other side of the bed curtains. She supposed it was the Queen's maid picking up the discarded clothing that Ehlan could not remember taking off. She stretched her long frame and pushed aside the curtain.
"Your Majesty," greeted the maid seeing Ehlan. She curtseyed then straightened. "Would you like to break fast?"
"Not yet Moira, could you order a bath drawn for me?" Ehlan asked, grimacing at the thought of food. She hoped a hot bath would steam last night's wine from her system. Moira helped her into a dressing robe before leaving to order the bath.
Ehlan went to the window and pulled aside the curtain. She winced at the sudden glare. Gradually her eyes adjusted. She looked out at the jeweled city of Borcea. Pride swelled in her heart as she gazed at the crowning jewel in the kingdom. Ehlan could not imagine living anywhere else. Much less in a mountain city in the Goddess forsaken endless Plains of Tunon. Her eyes darkened at the thought of Taura.
"Taura, why did you leave me?" she whispered, surprised when tears stung her eyes. She had tried to get the other woman out of her head and her heart, but she refused to go. Every woman Ehlan tried to bed since returning did not compare and she kept seeing Taura moving beneath her. In disgust she had not taken anyone to her bed in weeks.
"Your Majesty? Your bath is ready," came a discreet voice behind her. Ehlan brushed away the unfamiliar tears before turning.
"Thank you Moira," she said softly going past the maid and into the small bathing chamber. As she settled into the warm water, her mind went unbidden to a bath she and Taura had shared one evening in a tavern. She remembered the swell of Taura's breasts, the feel of their fullness in her hands, the taste of her lips. Ehlan groaned aloud.
"Oh stop it!" she said, slapping the water in irritation.
"I am sorry Your Majesty," a startled voice said. Ehlan opened her eyes to see a young girl setting a tray down.
"No, I'm sorry, I was speaking my thoughts aloud. Pay me no mind," the girl curtseyed before leaving.
"May I bathe Your Majesty?" a familiar smug voice asked. Ehlan did not turn around to look at Nemi. She sighed inwardly.
"You may," she answered with a neutral tone. Nemi's eyes narrowed before she moved to the large tub. Without a word she picked up the sponge. Ehlan closed her eyes and ignored the lady's maid.
"Ehlan, why have you not sent for me?" Nemi asked as she brushed out Ehlan's still damp hair after Ehlan's bath. Ehlan did not look up from the parchment she was reading.
"I have been busy."
"You cut the audience short yesterday."
"Nemi, are you spying on me?" Ehlan asked with a frown.
"No, not at all Ehlan. It is just that I've missed you. You were away so long and I know you have not been sharing the Lady Serina's bed."
"Nemi," Ehlan said sharply. "It is of no concern to you whose bed I share."
"But Ehlan, I thought," Nemi began her eyes showing her hurt.
"I know what you thought Nemi," Ehlan sighed lowering the parchment she was reading, she knew that now was the time, she could put it off no longer. "But you know it is not possible."
"Enough Nemi, you know it is not possible. What we had was pleasant but it could never be permanent," Ehlan said gently. She turned in her chair to face Nemi.
"Why, because I am not of noble birth?" demanded Nemi.
"Partly," Ehlan answered truthfully. "But if that was the only thing standing in the way I would find a way around it," the Queen said sincerely.
"Then what is it?" Ehlan looked at her sadly. She had never any desire to hurt the other woman. It had never occurred to her that she could or would.
"I don't love you," answered Ehlan softly hating herself.
Nemi's head snapped back as if she had been struck. With a sob she turned and ran from the room. Sadly Ehlan turned back to the mirror, picked up her brush and finished brushing her hair. She had not anticipated this hurting as much as it did.
Baran found her much later in the practice yard. Ehlan had been sparring for hours, fiercely almost angrily. He watched as the lithe Queen deftly parried a stroke from her opponent. She quickly set him on the defensive and with a series of quick strokes dispatched him easily. She lowered her practice sword, breathing heavily. Grinning she helped her fallen opponent up. Her grin widened as she caught sight of Baran.
"Come my soft friend! You need a work out!" she called out to him.
"I don't want you to lose in front of your subjects," he teased. Ehlan laughed, her good humor returning.
"On your best day, you couldn't beat me," she boasted.
"How soon we forget the time I beat you so soundly you couldn't raise your arm for a week!" Ehlan laughed again. The soldiers standing around smiled at the banter.
"Well Bonded Companion, come try me now," she raised her sword.
"Would love to my love, but we have weightier matters to discuss," he said in all seriousness. Quickly the playful Heir Princess was replaced with the solemn Queen. Frowning Ehlan handed her blunt edged practice sword to her recent opponent. She looked deep into Baran's eyes trying to determine how serious.
The two began walking through the practice yards, their eyes taking in the many drills taking place. They were quiet until they reached the Queen's chambers.
"Well Baran," Ehlan said once they were alone.
"I received another missive from Darilas," he began. "Also I received another from the Border."
"And?" she was impatient.
"There have been more skirmishes along the Border. There have even been scouting patrols in Tunon. Darilas says they have been dealt with decisively."
"What are they doing?" Ehlan asked pacing the room.
Autumn had hung on winter still had not arrived and looked to be actually late this year. Things were not ready to happen yet. Taura and the Tunonien were not ready yet; the High Blood Throne was not ready. "Why are the Niam outside their borders?"
"I would say they are scouting, trying to find out how ready we are. The reports that I have gotten indicate that there is a lot more activity going on."
"How much time?" she asked still pacing, her thoughts racing.
"A year, two if we are lucky," Baran answered. Ehlan sighed and fell into a chair. She pulled on an ear lobe lost in thought.
"Darilas also said there was some problem between Taura and one of the te-sudar. Apparently someone Challenged her."
"Is she all right?" Ehlan asked her head jerking up.
"Yes, she defeated him soundly. But his te-sudar has left for the Plains. There was also some type of magic test, which she passed. In fact according to Darilas she may be the strongest Tunonien ever. They are all quite excited." Ehlan smiled slightly, feeling an absurd pride in Taura's accomplishments.
"What is happening with the te-sudar?"
"Darilas said that they have asked to hold council with Taura. Their support is pretty limited. She says she thinks that Taura can get them to come back."
"Good, we don't need that portion of the Prophesy coming true anytime soon. If Anel or Niam finds out," she didn't finish the thought or the sentence.
"Well so far so good on that," was Baran's dry response. "We have to be very diligent about spies now. The Lefor has found two in the last passing."
"We need to know what is going on there," commented Ehlan sitting down and pouring two goblets of wine. She watered hers down considerably, last night still fresh in her mind. "We need to get someone in there." The two shared a look.
"Joli," they breathed.
"So what do I owe this pleasure?" asked Joli after being shown into the Queen's chambers.
Ehlan looked at the man clothed completely in black, his black hilted sword was slung low on his hip. He moved inside easily into the room, you could tell by the way he moved he knew how to use the sword strapped to his waist.
"We have a job for you," Ehlan said.
"Is that you and Baran or the Royal 'we'?" he asked dryly.
"Both," was the short answer. Ehlan studied him intently. He turned his pale eyes to her and held her gaze. His eyes flickered to Baran who stood just behind and to the left of Ehlan as was proper. "Joli," Ehlan began finally after the silence had stretched. "I need for you to do something for me."
"I'm not sure I like the sound of this," he muttered as he sat down opposite her.
"We need you to go to Niam."
"No, we're serious. We need you to get in and…."
"Spy," Joli interrupted. He was scowling.
"In a word, yes."
"Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?" he demanded, his face flushed with anger.
"Yes," was the simple reply.
Joli looked between the Queen and her Bonded Companion. Even though they were in the Queen's private chambers he knew how deadly serious they were.
"Is it that bad?" Joli finally asked.
"Yes, we believe so. Darilas found some scouting patrols in Tinesse and Tunon," Baran said. "The Lefor," he named the secret intelligence agency, "has found spies here, at least one was in the Palace." Joli whistled softly, his eyes inward.
"We need to know what is going on there Joli."
"I did not really believe this would come to pass."
"Neither did we Joli," Baran agreed.
"When can you leave?" Ehlan asked. Joli raised a dark eyebrow over his pale eye, the scar on his cheek was visibly whiter.
"You do know what you are asking of me don't you?" he asked.
"Yes," Ehlan answered softly, her eyes boring into his. "Joli, if there was any other way I would not ask this of you."
"I know," he sighed. "It's just the very thought of going there, of feeling the Dark God, it causes my flesh to creep," Joli, shuddered. At one time he had not been afraid of anything.
"If you don't want to," Baran began.
"I don't," Joli interrupted flatly. "But I will do it. As you say you need to know what is going on there. Besides the overall danger is greater than the danger to my soul."
"The greater good," whispered Ehlan.
"Goddess be with you," Baran said softly, making the sign of the Triad.
Ehlan sat at her window staring out into the night sky much later. Her heart was heavy as she thought of the task she had set upon her cousin. Joli was distantly related to her on her father's side, but he could be no closer to her if he was born from the same womb. Growing up she and Baran had worshipped the older Joli. They followed him everywhere he went, whenever they could.
When he was younger, Joli was a cavalier young man. Colorful in both language and clothing, he was somewhat of a fop. But Ehlan loved him. Drinking and debauchery was his normal course of action. A young Heir Princess and her soon to be Bonded Companion would watch in awe, as he would drain a jug of unwatered wine, quickly best the most skilled of swordsman and then convince a kitchen maid to hide in the stable with him.
Then he had changed. Ehlan's father had sent him as an emissary to the Border patrol. Ehlan had never found out what had happened but somehow his unit had been ambushed and all but a few had died at Niam's altars. Those that did not were taken as slaves beyond the borders of Niam. Joli was one of the latter.
After five years Joli had managed to escape. He never spoke of what had happened. But gone was the carefree colorful young man. In his place was a thin pale man with a scar running from the corner of his left eye to the corner of his mouth, a jagged raw scar. He wore nothing but black and wore a black sword, the steel burnished to a black edge. When asked, he would say it was because it matched the blackness in his soul.
Ehlan tried to keep back the tears. Knowing she was sending her cousin to an almost sure death was making her heart heavy. She knew also the daily battle Joli fought to keep the darkness at bay, and now she was sending him to the heart of that darkness.
"How could you not tell me!?" Ehlan shouted, slamming her fist down on the table, dislodging a book. Baran stood on the other side of her desk. His normal skin tone was pale in the face of Ehlan's white-hot anger. It had been a few months since Joli had departed for Niam. Tinesse was firmly entrenched in winter. Much to the relief of the priestess winter did not come early, only one moon had risen red, they felt there was still time. "How could you not tell me? I had to find out from a caven!"
"Ehlan," he began.
"No Baran! I do not wish to hear any platitudes coming from your mouth," Ehlan pushed away from the desk and strode angrily over to the window. She was too angry to speak. "How long have you known?" she asked a moment later.
"Just a few weeks, Your Majesty."
"A few weeks," she snorted angrily. "And you choose not to tell me! How could you Baran? What other secrets are you keeping from me Bonded Companion?" she asked sarcastically. Ehlan turned to look at him. His face went still. "Do I need to now worry about what else you have not told me?" her voice was deadly quiet.
"Are you questioning my loyalty Your Majesty?" he asked, just as quietly.
"You tell me Companion," she stressed his title. "The Carussa has taken a lover and you choose not to tell me!"
"Ehlan, I didn't want to upset you."
"Baran, how could you not tell me, you know how I feel about her," Ehlan's voice showed all the pain she felt.
When the Tunonien had told her about Taura and her khair Ehlan had thought her heart would stop. She had not been with anyone for months and Taura had taken a lover, a Tunonien lover!
"Yes, I know how you feel, that is why I did not tell you. You had enough to worry about with Joli and with Senat," he named one of the Lower Thrones. Senat had been making noises about succeeding from the Allegiance. One of their demands had been that Ehlan join with a royal daughter. "Besides Darilas says they are not lovers yet."
"Yet," spat Ehlan. She began to pace again.
"I am sorry Ehlan, I didn't want to hurt you," Baran finally said, his voice sad.
"I know Baran," Ehlan sighed. "I'm sorry I yelled at you."
"It is of no matter," he watched as she paced the room some more. Finally she sat dejectedly down behind her desk. "Ehlan," he began, worried by the bleak look on her face.
"Leave me Baran," she said softly.
"Please," she whispered, trying to hold back the tears. She didn't want to cry in front of him. He bowed deeply before exiting the room. Only when she was alone did she allow the tears to fall.
"They are going to bring up the subject of a Chosen," Baran told Ehlan a few days later as he fended off a thrust.
Baran was Ehlan's Bonded, not her Chosen. The Queen by law had to join to produce an Heir. The Bonded Companion was chosen usually from a royal family loyal to the Queen, a second or third son. The Queen could then if she so desired pick a Chosen companion. Sometimes they were the one and the same. In Ehlan's case she would have Baran as Chosen except that they were both Blessed by the Goddess to share her blessing with members of their own sex. When the time came to reproduce, Ehlan and Baran would go to the temple and perform the ritual that would allow them to conceive a child without having to share their bodies with each other.
"Yes, at the council meeting today the High Council will once more bring up the subject of a Chosen and an Heir. They want to see you properly settled," he told her with a grin.
"And I suppose they have someone in mind?" she asked managing to avoid a thrust.
"Several in fact. Serina still leads the pack by the way. They feel that Vicoll will be easier to sway from his neutrality if you are joined to his sister," Baran supplied, naming the King of Titone a kingdom in the northern frozen steppes. They had deep gold mines in Titone. "They also have a list of sons if the daughters do not catch your eye."
"How do your spies get information before mine do?"
"Who do you think gives your spies their information?" he grinned managing to parry. Suddenly he was on the defensive as Ehlan pressed her attack. Deftly she knocked his wooden sword from his hand and leveled her sword point at the vulnerable base of his throat. He grinned broadly.
"Now then, you must allow them the opportunity to get the information."
"But this is so much more fun," without warning he pushed her arm away and knocked her feet from beneath her. With a series of quick movements Ehlan had Baran on the ground straddling him.
"So when do they plan to parade these lovelies before me?" she asked. Twisting Baran dislodged Ehlan and reversed their positions.
"At the Feast of Valeus, at the Sherea, the festival of the Harvest," he answered. The large festival would happen in a seven days time.
The Festival of the Harvest or the Sherea was one of the larger festivals. Held at the midpoint of winter it was a time of festival and holiday gift giving. The harvests were in and the harsh winter snows had begun. It was a seven-day holiday festival, culminating in the Feast of Valeus. After which at midnight the populace would head to the temple and receive the benediction of the Triad and the Blessing of the Goddess. Ehlan smiled mischievously and began to tickle her Bonded Companion.
"Foul! Foul!" he gasped trying to grab her hands. Ehlan laughed and pinned him beneath her again as she gasped for breath.
"Do you submit?"
"For you always my Queen," he answered silkily.
"Wretch," grinned Ehlan standing. She reached down and helped him to his feet. "Speaking of submitting," she cast the handsome young man a sidelong look as he tried to brush dust from his dun colored breeches. "How is Rolan?" she asked innocently. Baran blushed at the mention of Rolan. He was a young nobleman that Baran had recently become enamored with. Ehlan suspected that Rolan and Baran would join. But so far Baran had said nothing.
"Rolan is fine," he answered as the flush covered his face. "Which reminds me, I must go into the city this afternoon."
"You mean you have not gotten him a Sherea gift yet?" she asked incredulously, her eyes twinkling.
"Not yet, I haven't found just the right gift yet," he looked over at Ehlan who had gotten quiet.
"I wish I could go into the city without all the pomp," she sighed. The two headed from the practice field, followed closely by two silent guards.
"Well maybe you can," he whispered to her.
Ehlan looked at Baran, her eyes hopeful. Baran grinned his eyes sparkling with mirth. Sudden comprehension dawned in her pale eyes and the two laughed, taking off at a run.
When they reached Ehlan's chambers they quickly donned cloaks and swords. With matching mischievous grins they went into the Queens bedchamber, slipping easily into the secret passageway. They were laughing like guilty children hiding from their tutor. The two excited the passage into a little used hallway of the palace. From there they made their way out of the palace and into the bustling city.
Ehlan kept her cloak hood up, hiding her distinctive silver blond hair and kept her green eyes downcast. In a land of dark, red or brown haired people, Ehlan's coloring was unusual and stood out. Ehlan listened carefully to the talk of the people, the shopkeepers, shoppers, and the pedestrians as they went about their daily business. For the first time since her coronation Ehlan felt a connection to her subjects.
"This is good, I should do this more often," she said to Baran as they walked through one of the market bazaars. Her eyes took in the carts full of merchandise; storefronts were open to allow shoppers to enter full shops. The two laughed and moved out of the way of two small boys as they raced away holding onto apples snitched from a cart. The merchant chased after them, leaving his cart under the watchful eyes of his wife.
"I think you should," Baran agreed, stepping out of the way of a young woman burdened with a basket of food. "I think that was a large problem of your mothers. She lost touch with the people," Ehlan nodded agreeing with him.
"What do you think of this?" Ehlan asked, catching sight of something on a merchant's table. It was a borsuk board. The game was a popular strategy game. The pieces were colored glass, gray and red, and were delicately etched. The pieces were to move around the colored board; the object was to either capture all of your opponent's pieces or to surround his pieces. "Does he play?" she asked teasingly. All young noble men and women were taught the game. It was used to help them think through a problem to plan strategy. A true master of the game could plan in advance the entire game. Baran threw her a scornful look.
"Merchant!" Baran called out, getting the man's attention. He was dressed in peasant brown. He came over and bowed deeply, his manner deferential. "The borsuk how much?"
"Well, fine young sir, this is a fine piece, a fine eye you have there sir. It is made of the finest marble and crystal, imported straight from Picot, where as all know they make the finest crystal there and their mines produce the choicest marble. Why even the Palace doesn't have a borsuk board of such quality. Why even the Queen herself wanted to buy this board. But, alas we couldn't agree on a price," he told Baran; his voice had a singsong quality.
"Really?" asked Baran, skeptism deep in his voice. Baran named a price and the merchant gasped melodramatically and put a hand over his heart.
"My children will surely starve if I sell for that price!" and with that he countered. Ehlan listened amused as the two haggled over the price of the board. Finally they settled on a price and the merchant wrapped it up as Baran counted out the coin into his wife's hand.
"By the way good merchant, I would have paid your price," Ehlan said softly as the two made their leave. She let the cloak hood slip a little to reveal her hair. The merchant gasped and his mouth moved like a fish gasping for air. With a smile Ehlan turned and walked away.
"You are so bad," Baran chuckled, ruefully shaking his head.
"Well, he should not have implied I was cheap."
"It's your fault," Ehlan strode ahead, arrogantly, smugly a smile toying on her face.
"Yes, you're older so you should have been a better role model," Baran laughed.
The two continued on their way through the bazaar, browsing and haggling, buying trinkets for various people. They finally made their way toward the Palace. The first set of Palace Guards blinked in surprise upon seeing the Queen and the Bonded Companion strolling toward them from the direction of the city. They exchanged worried looks before saluting. They knew that the Captain of the Palace Guard would have some choice words about this. Unconcerned, the royal pair made their way back to their separate apartments.
Ehlan was reading a treaty agreement sent by the small country of Picot late that evening when a knock on her chamber door disturbed her. She absently bid them to enter, her eyes still studying the treaty.
"Your Majesty," a soft voice greeted. Turning Ehlan sat back in her chair as Serina curtseyed deeply. "I got your invitation." Ehlan smiled and rose. She moved across the room to the blond woman. Serina's brown eyes watched as Ehlan stalked closer.
"I'm glad you decided to come back," Ehlan said her voice low.
"How could I refuse an invitation to 'explore our options' I believe is what you said," Serina said with a small amused smile. Ehlan smiled back.
"How could you?" Ehlan lowered her head and lightly kissed Serina. "How could you indeed," she murmured before deepening the kiss.
Taura sat on the banks of the small river that flowed from the mountain range. She sat under a large tree. She had discovered this place not long after arriving in Tunon. Taura couldn't explain it, but she felt very close to her parents under this tree. Had she shared the location with Darilas, the other would have told her that this was the very tree where her parents would meet and under this tree her father had killed her brother's father. She picked at the grass near her foot and sighed.
Taura started visiting the tree on a daily basis soon after the Circle. She remembered very little of the experience, but the feeling remained. Her thoughts were clearer after her talk with the Goddess. Taura had been taking a lot at face value, not sure if she really believed what was being said. She had been allowing events to happen to her rather than take a stand. The first day she sat here and finally thought about all that had happened she had broken down and cried. Taura purged it all from her soul and the next day she let herself process the events that had brought her here.
Taura finally accepted to herself who and what she was. The enormity of her destiny threatened to overwhelm her, and at those times she came back to her tree and let her thoughts drift. Slowly but surely those doubts were becoming few and far between.
Taura sighed and sat back against the tree, the bark digging into her back. Her thoughts on this day were on Ehlan. A vision of Ehlan's face rose before her eyes, her throat constricted with unshed tears. She missed the blond, she admitted to herself. So much at times it caused her an almost physical pain. Taura questioned her decision to leave almost every other day, down from every day. Her head knew that they did not have a future and that this was for the best, but her heart did not. The dull ache had subsided a bit, especially now, but it still ached.
Her thoughts then moved to Kerin, her khair. The tall woman had been her almost constant companion since their meeting. They spent a lot of time talking and Kerin had shown her around the mountain city. Slowly a friendship had grown and even slower romantic feelings surfaced. They had recently discussed their attraction to each other and their time together had taken a turn. Taura smiled as her thoughts drifted to their first kiss. A soft sweet kiss that was pleasant but did not send the electric bolt of desire to her core that Ehlan's kisses did. Taura sighed once more and forcibly pushed thoughts of the Queen aside.
As she watched a small cloud drift by she pulled her cloak closer around her. Winter in Tunon brought rain, and lots of it, today was a clear day, for that she was grateful. It had taken some time for her to get used to the weather in Tunon, but the longer she stayed in Tunon the more she liked it, all of it, not just the weather. Taura wondered how her parents were able to survive being away from their birthplace for so long.
Taura shifted again, getting comfortable. She would not be able to come back to the tree for a while. When spring came she would be given her Affan with the others in the Zariet. The Kaden had been very pleased with her skill with sword and staff, so they had spent most of their time teaching her magic. Taura mastered most with ease, no longer getting dizzy or nauseous when using it. Not so with war magic. She was having difficulty learning the war magic that Darilas deemed necessary for her to learn. Even the smallest task was very difficult for her. Taura would grow weak and lightheaded and often would vomit afterwards. The Kaden, the Navas and the entire Zariet was puzzled by the reaction. Taura was dreading each lesson, as the side effects grew worse. Even without the war magic she had passed each test and had earned her Affan. She was actually looking forward to the Dhala, the spring festival. This was not a Govan passing so there would be no elections this time.
Taura would miss her time at the Zariet. She had always enjoyed learning new things and had been saddened when her time at the village school had come to an end. While at the academy she could put aside the fact she was the Carussa and be just another Tunonien learning to use her weapons. She also would miss spending so much time with her cousins, especially Cayne and Geni. The trio had plagued the Navas and the Kaden with their antics. Their latest had had Gefion naked and bound with a rope. No could prove they did it as they had used magic to bind him, but Taura knew that they were convinced that the cousins had done it. Gefion had refused to speak with any of them since. Taura chuckled at the thought. She had learned a lot about being a Tunonien from her cousins as well and would miss them terribly when they went back to their te-sudar. She pushed that thought from her mind.
Thoughts of the Zariet brought her to her next test. On the morrow she would be leaving, accompanied by only her khair. They were to go into the Plains on a quest. Taura asked what they were searching for and was told enlightenment. Each student before earning the Affan would be sent into the Plains with his or her guide for one moon. It was said that the spirit of a Tunonien that had gone to Bellus would then visit them. The spirit would then impart onto them their purpose or to some just give their blessing, it varied from person to person. Taura wondered what would be imparted to her. She was also looking forward to seeing some of the Plain, as well as spending time with Kerin. Taura was still smiling later when a cavena found her.
"I know you leave early in the morning for your quest but I have news from the Border," Darilas said when Taura entered. Darilas stepped away from the table that was overflowing papers. Her private office in the Carun's residence was small and all the space was taken up with papers, books and scrolls.
"Is there a problem?" asked Taura.
"Niam," was all that Darilas said.
"What are they doing now?"
"They are attacking the Border Guards more often, they are using more magic and the two te-sudariem that are there are hard pressed to help the Queen's Army. More and more patrols are being found on our side of the Border."
"What are they doing?" Taura asked with a frown. "Are they ready for Antranik?"
"Our information suggests not. The Queen has sent spies to Niam in hopes that we may obtain more information."
"You have been in contact with Ehlan?" Taura questioned, her voice soft, she turned to look at Darilas. The older woman looked at her, her eyes unreadable.
"Yes," was all that she said.
"Is she well?"
"Yes." Taura nodded and turned away, pacing the length of the room.
"Well, can we send another two te-sudariem?"
"I am not sure if two would be enough," Darilas' voice was grim.
"How many do you suggest?"
"Four, and I would send Baclar and his te-sudar."
"I see," Taura went to a small table, which held a jug of wine and two goblets.
She filled each, handing one to Darilas. They had recently had council with Baclar's elders and they had been welcomed back to Tunon. Baclar had lost all status and was serving as thian, or unhonored servant. They were dressed in black to distinguish them from other servants for they were the lowest of the low. To be named thian was a punishment, for you lost all rights and all privilege and in fact lost your name. You were forbidden to use magic or any of your other weapons, your purpose was to serve only and in anyway that was asked of you. A thian could serve as little as a day as thian or as long as life, depending on the depth of their disgrace.
"You don't feel that they were sincere enough in their apology?" she asked Darilas.
"I believe the elders were sincere enough, but Baclar has many followers in his clan."
"So sending them to the Border would get them away from Tunon. But could it not be dangerous to send them so close to Niam if their hearts are already dark?"
"Taura," gasped Darilas, her face pale. "No Tunonien would give themselves to the Dark God."
"Anel did," was the soft reply. Darilas did not speak right away.
"Anel was not raised Tunonien, Taura, he is not a true Tunonien."
"Neither was I. Am I not a true Tunonien?" her gray eyes bored into Darilas'.
"You are Tunonien, both of you," Darilas finally said. "But Taura, you must understand, we are raised from birth to fight the Dark God, no Tunonien, raised as a Tunonien would give themselves to the Dark God."
"Your faith in Tunonien is commendable Darilas, but is it wise?"
"Baclar in Tunon will do you no good Taura."
"But we run the risk of sending him away and him selling his soul," countered Taura.
"You are still new to us, Taura, some are unsure," began Darilas.
"Then I will have to make them sure Darilas, we can not have Tunonien against Tunonien."
"What do you suggest?" Darilas asked with a sigh. Taura sat down and sipped her wine, her eyes unseeing on the tale in front of her.
"Letting them stay here earns no honor for them, too many blame them for Baclar's action," Taura finally said. Darilas nodded. "Sending them to the Border gives them an opportunity to earn back some of the honor they lost."
"Yes, Taura, that is so." Taura sighed heavily.
"Let them watch Baclar, let them know that this will prove their loyalty and restore all honor in the eyes of Tunon," she said before draining her goblet.
"Very wise Carussa," murmured Darilas before bowing to Taura, touching first her heart then her head.
"Please, Darilas," she raised a protesting hand. "It was your idea."
"But my reasons were far less wise," she said with a rueful chuckle. Taura's eyes were amused.
"And what were your reasons?"
"I wanted them away from Tunon because I did not trust Baclar and wanted him far away," Taura shook her head and laughed lightly.
"That's my real reason as well," she told her. Both shared a warm laugh.
Taura was awake when Kerin came to her chambers before first light. She was sitting on her bed polishing her sword. Her mind was clear as she prepared for her quest. Kerin stood in the doorway and watched her, a smile toying with her lips. Finally Taura looked up and smiled, a bright smile that radiated light. Kerin felt her heart swell with emotion.
"Kerin, is it time?" she asked almost eagerly. She was looking forward to her quest for a few reasons. One being that she would be away from the confines of the mountain city and the ever-curious Tunonien. A part of her was also looking forward to traveling again albeit it with out the dangers of her previous trip.
"Yes, Taura it is time," she answered. Taura grinned and rose from the bed. She sheathed her sword, and picked up her pack. "I take it you are ready?" she asked with a grin.
"Yes, I'm ready."
The two women made their way down the causeway and to the stables. There other students and their guides were preparing for their own quests. A feeling of excitement hung heavy in the air. Shouts filled the early morning, as they made ready. Taura and Kerin made their way to their horses held ready by a young girl. They were to take nothing but some trail rations and water for a week. They were to live completely off the Plains. The quest was to represent the first clans as they wandered the Plains searching for a home before a vision of the Goddess came to the first Carussa and pointed him toward the mountain range.
"Taura! Taura!" called out a voice as Taura checked her horse's saddle, turning she saw Cayne approaching her. Taura grinned as her cousin made her way over. The two embraced.
"I came to wish you safe journey Taura. When next we see each other we will have earned the Affan," she was grinning from ear to ear.
"Well, I will have earned it, you will be given the Affan so they can get you out of the Zariet!" teased Taura as her irrepressible cousin laughed.
"They are not done with me yet, I have asked to be Kaden," she announced. Taura was surprised. Her cousin had not mentioned a desire to further her education in any way. She was strong enough in all Tunonien weapons to be able to earn the rank of Kaden, but Taura didn't think she had the desire.
"You? A Kaden?" Taura asked her eyebrows raised over gray eyes. Cayne laughed again.
"Yes, me a Kaden. Do you think I can't do it?"
"No, I'm sure you could, but I'm just surprised that you would want to," admitted Taura.
"Taura, if I return to my te-sudar I will remain a minor member, but here in Tunon as a Kaden I can apply my talents to something more worthwhile, something more important than patrolling the herds and training horses. I can become a member of the Duma. I can do so much more from here," she said, her eyes shining in earnest. Taura nodded.
"I understand Cayne. I will support you in all ways," she hugged her cousin again.
"Thank you Taura. As Carussa you can name me Kaden you know," Cayne said with an impish grin. Taura chuckled and shook her head.
"I think it will mean more if you earn it Cayne."
"You are right, oh wise Carussa," Cayne intoned bowing deeply. Taura laughed and pulled her up.
"Stop, and you better get back to your khair, he is glaring at us." Cayne looked over her shoulder at her glowering guide.
"He'll get over it. He has not been happy with me from the beginning. You will have much more fun with your guide," she indicated the waiting Kerin with her head. She smiled and wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. "Have you shared the Blessing yet?" she asked in a loud whisper.
"That is none of your business. Now go on with you. Safe journey Cayne." Her cousin laughed and moved away.
"As you wish Carussa," she laughed and turned away heading back to her own guide. Taura mounted her horse and looked at Kerin. She could not help the large grin that moved across her lips.
"Are you ready?" Kerin asked softly, her eyes burning into Taura's.
"Yes." Without another word the two headed out and moved deep into the Plains.
Taura soon lost track of the days as she and Kerin traveled deeper into the endless Plains of Tunon. The mountain range that was the mountain city had all but disappeared as they rode. They had encountered herds of cattle and antelope. They had also come across a herd of wild horses. Taura watched wide-eyed as the horses ran wild. They moved with such freedom as they ran across the Plain. Taura envied them their freedom and grace.
She had been surprised at the Plains. Like most people she had thought that the Endless Plains of Tunon were desolate and empty. But in fact nothing could be further from the truth. It was teeming with wildlife and plant growth. Taura found herself more often than not looking around in wonder at the world around her.
The two would ride most of the day and stop before sundown and make camp. It was a leisurely pace that Taura found somewhat comforting. The two rode in companionable silence or they shared stories about themselves.
"Do you still love her?" Kerin asked, her eyes on the small fire. That day she had asked about Taura and Ehlan's frantic trip to Borcea. Reluctantly Taura found herself telling the whole story for the first time.
"I will always love her, but it is different now," Taura finally answered after a long moment of time. 'I think' she added silently to herself. Kerin nodded.
"We could never have been together no matter what either of us wanted Kerin. We both have our responsibilities. Neither of us can turn our backs on them. She could no more give up the High Blood Throne then I could give up being Tunonien. No, what we had was pleasant and brief, just as the Goddess planned it to be."
"The Goddess does everything for a reason Taura."
"Yes, I'm sure she does. She brought me here, she brought me to you," Taura said softly looking at the woman opposite. Taura felt a rush of affection for Kerin. She thought that perhaps being with Kerin would finally drown out Ehlan in her thoughts once and for all. Kerin smiled brightly and moved to sit next to Taura.
"Yes she did." The two shared a look.
Kerin leaned in and lightly touched her lips to Taura's. Once more Taura fought back the slight disappointment as the kiss deepened. The kiss while pleasant did not carry the same heat, the same desire as Ehlan's kisses. Pushing thoughts of the Heir Princess from her mind almost forcibly Taura pulled Kerin to her.
Taura lowered Kerin to the ground, her lips still moving over the silky softness of Kerin's lips. Kerin made a soft sound as Taura's lips moved down her throat, her teeth grazing the sensitive skin. Kerin put a hand to the back of Taura's head, urging her on. Taura's fingers deftly untied the neck of Kerin's tunic and pushed it aside, her lips once more seeking Kerin's skin.
"Oh Taura," Kerin breathed. Taura's hand gently stroked her stomach moving higher as Kerin arched her back into her touch. "Please Carussa."
"Am I the Carussa as I touch you or am I Taura?" the auburn haired woman whispered looking down into Kerin's desire darkened eyes.
"Are you not one and the same?" Kerin countered. Taura looked at her, her gray eyes unreadable.
"No, they are not. I want you to be with Taura, not the Carussa," she sad almost sadly. Taura realized then why Ehlan had kept her identity secret for so long.
"I am always with you Taura," whispered Kerin. She reached up and pulled Taura down and kissed her almost harshly. With a groan she rolled over and pinned Taura beneath her. "I will make you forget her, I swear," she murmured against Taura's lips. Taura did not reply.
Their lovemaking started slow, each almost shy with each other. Trembling fingers undressed the other, touching carefully almost reverently. Soft sighs filled the air as naked flesh pressed into naked flesh for the first time. Whispers and soft murmured words floated up as hands stroked and touched. Cries sailed out into the night sky as fingers and tongues probed, stroked and found heated centers, releasing floods of desire.
Taura lay on her back; Kerin snuggled close to her side afterwards. Her eyes were on the endless night sky. The sky was afire with the millions of stars, more than she could count in a lifetime. She recognized some of the same constellations she had seen from her farm on the northern mountain. Some had the same name here and some different. There were also new constellations that were not visible from her home. Taura felt very much at peace. The doubts and tensions of the past few months had been dissolved. She felt at home. She pulled Kerin closer and shifted the blanket to cover them both. Taura drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face.
"You are beautiful as you sleep," Kerin said with a smile when Taura opened her eyes early the next morning. Kerin was propped up on her elbow looking down at Taura. The gray-eyed woman rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
"Thanks," she laughed.
"No, really, you look so innocent, so young, I could spend a lifetime looking at you," Kerin told her seriously.
Taura looked up at her, searching her eyes. They had not spoken of the future, of where they were headed from here. Taura had spent enough time with the Tunonien to know that they did not give themselves lightly, that they did not share the Blessing unless there was feeling behind it. Not for them casual couplings. Taura knew she cared deeply for Kerin, probably even loved her but was not sure if she could commit herself as of yet. She thought it would be unfair considering her destiny to lead the armies of Man against the army of a God.
"Kerin," she began, knowing she had to tell the other.
"I know Taura, you are not ready. I am not ready yet either. You still have much to do and I have my own tasks to complete."
"It's not that I don't care for you Kerin, I do," Taura told her, touching her face. Kerin turned her face into Taura's hand, placing a small kiss on the palm.
"I know Taura."
"Kerin," Taura began, her heart aching at the small flash of sadness in Kerin's eyes.
"Shh, my Carussa, the time will come, but for now let us enjoy this," she bent her head and kissed Taura. Before long their passions took hold and it was sometime before they broke apart.
For the next several days, their mornings started later and the set up camp for the evening much earlier. Taura was surprised at her passion for Kerin. She had thought never to feel passion for any one other than Ehlan so her desire to share the Blessing with the other Tunonien had taken her by surprise. She decided not to dwell on it.
Their time was coming short and Kerin had advised Taura that they would need to start heading back soon. Taura was a little worried, as she had not had her vision yet. She told Kerin that she wanted to continue on a little more. Kerin had tried to tell her that not every Tunonien received a vision, but Taura would not be swayed.
Taura became more dismayed as the days continued and as of yet she had not been visited. She had them traveling for longer periods, stopping well after dark and leaving earlier. Their lovemaking slowed down as each was exhausted after their long days. Kerin knew that they would be hard pressed to return on time if they did not turn back. But Taura continued on. Their food supply ran short and game was becoming harder to find as they moved deeper into the Plains. The rains had all but stopped this far out and the area was dry and deserted, dust billowing up behind their horses. Water was becoming even scarcer. Kerin was growing worried and told Taura. But still the other pushed forward.
Taura could not tell Kerin what kept her going forward. She just felt she was being pulled deeper and deeper into the Plains. Taura could no more stop than she could stop breathing. She did not question it; she just let it guide her. Just as they ran out of water, she felt the urge to change direction and led them directly to a small spring. Taura knew then that the Goddess was guiding her.
Taura was woken from a deep sleep. She laid still her eyes searching the darkness for the source of the disturbance. Silence met her. Complete silence. The wind that had moved through the waist high blades of grass seemed to have stopped. There was a heavy stillness in the air. Nothing stirred, not Kerin at her side or their horses. Taura slowly sat up and looked around, her hand reaching for her closest weapon, her staff. Gripping her staff in her hand she stood up, turning as she looked around. Still nothing moved.
"Come Carussa," came a soft voice. The voice surrounded her and she could not tell from which direction it came from. "Come."
Taura took a step away from the low burning campfire and stopped unsure of which direction she should go. After another step her feet started moving almost of their own accord, confident in the direction. She walked for sometime before reaching a small outcropping of rocks almost invisible in the high grass. Standing on the top was a figure of a man, dressed in Tunonien clothes; he was bathed in a soft white glow. He was beckoning her toward him. Taura moved confidently toward the figure.
"Tes'muis Valeus, " he greeted as she approached. She repeated the Goddess' greeting to him. "I am Zura, the God Bellus has allowed me to come to you."
"Well met Zura," she told him.
"We have waited centuries for you Carussa. Your burden is a heavy one and your heart is saddened. Carussa know that the Triad themselves ride at your side. There will be many deaths on both sides in the coming battle but know that all is not in vain."
"It is hard not to feel it will be in vain Zura. It hurts to look around me and know that some will die, that I may die."
"Carussa, your feelings for the Tunonien do you much honor. To die is our task. The God Mirus gave us this task and we accepted. This is our destiny. Be not saddened at our deaths for our passing is just a beginning. The House of Bellus is all wondrous and our souls will be reborn. Fear not for us. Be true to your destiny Carussa, you must accept the fact they we may not survive. The entire Tunonien nation may perish but it will not be in vain. The realms of man must be protected and this is our task. Accept your task Carussa," he ordered her almost sternly. "Accept your task. " Taura looked at him, tears stinging in her eyes as she realized that she had to stop trying to find a way out.
She had to accept her destiny as Carussa. She had to accept the task that had been given to her before she was born. She had to stop trying not to face the fact that people would die, that she herself would die. As Zura said this was their task. They were to protect the realms at all cost. They had accepted this task from the Gods themselves. No matter that she had not been born when that promise was made, it was bred into her soul and to not honor it was to not honor her race.
"Accept your task. " He ordered once more, his eyes boring into her, seeing into her soul, and seeing into her doubts. Finally Taura nodded, giving herself completely to her task, to her destiny. Accepting fully her destiny, accepting fully her fate as Carussa to the Tunonien.
"I accept my task," she said softly. The sky around her darkened and a brilliant flash of lightening cut through the sky, followed by a loud clap of thunder. Clouds began boiling angrily as more and more flashes of lightening split the night sky. The wind began to howl and whip through her, sending her cloak trailing behind her. Rain began to beat down, pelting her with hard stinging drops. "I accept my task!" she shouted into the night sky her arms raised. "I accept my task!" she screamed. As suddenly as it started the storm passed, leaving a sweet smelling breeze behind it.
"Goddess met Carussa," Zura said his eyes still never leaving hers. Behind him another shaft of light appeared. It was larger and held two figures. Zura moved aside and the figures in the light stepped forward. Tears sprang to her eyes as Taura recognized her parents. They were standing close, holding hands and dressed as Tunonien.
"Our child, " they said as one. Their eyes shone with the love they felt for their child. Taura reached out to them and stepped closer to the rock upon which they stood.
"Mother? Poppa?" she asked.
"You have grown kiele one, " her mother said. "We have watched you from Bellus' house little one and we are very pleased. You have saved our souls by accepting your task."
"You carry our honor with you always Taura-girl. Our one regret is that we will not be with you physically in this most troublesome time," her father said a sad smile on his face. "But know that we are with you in sprit always. We are well pleased with you."
"I'm sorry I was not there to prevent what Anel did," Taura told them, tears welling in her eyes.
"Taura you could not have prevented our destiny. You have your destiny to follow as did we," Gelen answered. "Do not regret what you can not change."
"You begin a dangerous journey from here Taura," her mother began. "Do not let the past cloud your decisions. You will be faced with choices, some hard, and some easy. Follow your heart in all that you do and you will follow the Goddess' plan."
"Take the scrolls you found in our chest Taura. Take them with you when you leave Tunon. They are in ancient Tunonien and are incantations that will help you in Antranik. You must learn to speak the ancient language. One among you knows. It also grieves us to tell you that one close to you will betray you," her father told her his voice sad.
"Someone will betray me? Who?" Taura asked surprised.
"We can not reveal that to you Taura. To do so will interfere in someone's destiny and that we may not do." Maura answered.
"Who knows the ancient language? Who do I ask?"
"One who is close to you knows Taura. That is all we may say. Please carry it with you at all times Taura. The time to use it is not yet, but closer than you think," Gelen imparted. "Be well our daughter, be happy, and may the Goddess guide you always." The last was barely heard as the light began to fade and Taura's parents disappeared with the light.
"NO!" she shouted jumping onto the rock and reaching out for her parents. With a sob she fell to her knees, her heart breaking, the anguish she felt over their murder returning fully. "No, no, please no, don't leave me again," she whispered through the tears, her fists pounding ineffectively on the ground. "Please don't leave me again."
"Grieve no longer my child, " Taura's head shot up at the soft, loving voice.
She had heard that voice on two other occasions but had never seen the face that went with it. Standing on the rock in front of her was a woman. The woman was in flowing white robes. Her age was indeterminate and her face was slightly rounded with full lips and large eyes. Her body was lush and motherly. Love shone brightly in her eyes and compassion poured from her. Goodness surrounded her like the light that encased her. Her aura was a beacon. Taura's heart ached with the goodness that radiated from the figure. Standing before her, in her mortal form was the Goddess Valeus in all her glory. Taura's mind struggled with what she was seeing.
"Goddess," breathed Taura, her eyes wide.
"Yes my child. Your tears grieve me. Cry no longer, for Gelen and Maura are in my brother's House waiting to be reborn. Their souls are safe from my Dark brother. Their task is complete."
"I understand Goddess."
"Good. Your heart hurts I know, but the grief is already subsiding from your soul. You will all be reunited one day in my brother's House. Know that they did not die in vain, my child."
"Return now to your khair my Carussa, my most Blessed One. It is time for you to return to the Blessed Tribe. Soon you must leave the Plains and return to the outside world. Heed well the words of your parents my child. Go with my Blessing," the Goddess reached out and placed a hand on Taura's head. A rush of pure light and emotion shot through her and Taura gasped in surprise. Just as suddenly as the touch happened it disappeared and when the Carussa of the Tunonien opened her eyes she was alone on the Plain with a soft sighing wind.
"She's coming here?" Taura asked incredously. She and Kerin had arrived back in Tunon late the previous evening. Darilas had come to her chamber just after first light and imparted the news. "Ehlan is coming here?"
"Yes, she is coming for the Dhala. Not only will you be receiving the Affan but you will be also crowned with the Attul. It is only proper that the High Blood Throne be present," Darilas told her, no emotion in her voice. Inside though she was seething. Darilas had tried to talk to Taura about Kerin and the relationship. She had not been pleased when things had progressed. Darilas knew Taura was fated to be with Ehlan but both were being stubborn about it, resisting the Goddess' plan.
"Yes, but why is she coming? Why is she not sending an emissary?" Taura felt something close to panic grip her soul. She began to pace nervously. "She can't come here," Taura whispered.
"Why? It is proper that she be here. The Tunonien have not crowned a Carussa in centuries."
"I know," Taura said exasperated. "I just don't want to see her that's all." She continued to pace. "Damn. Well it can't be helped I suppose. And of course I do not need to see her alone if I choose not to," Taura said to herself more than to Darilas.
"As you wish Carussa," Darilas said softly.
The term no longer made Taura cringe. When she accepted her task she accepted her title. When she had arrived back in Tunon she had ordered her things brought to the Mannas. After a moments surprised hesitation Darilas had smiled. She had been waiting for Taura to accept the mantle that was hers. A noise in the doorway attracted their attention. Kerin stood in the doorway to the main room of the Mannas. Taura smiled.
"Thank you Darilas for bringing me this news. You may go on about your day now," she said softly, her eyes on Kerin. The Tunonien tried not to let the smug smile surface as she watched the older woman frown.
"Yes Carussa, but we have…"
"That will be all Darilas-Carun," Taura cut her off, firmly. Darilas nodded and bowed deeply before retreating. She looked at Kerin harshly before leaving. Kerin smiled and moved into the room and into Taura's waiting arms.
"I missed you this morning," Taura said after kissing Kerin softly.
"And I you, Carussa."
"Kerin," warned Taura with a mock glare. Kerin laughed and kissed the other woman.
"We have time before you have to be at the practice ring. Is there something you would like to do?" she asked Taura as the other woman placed soft kisses on her neck.
"Is there some place you would like to do it?"
"Yes," answered Taura her lips moving onto Kerin's jaw line.
"Can we go there?" Kerin managed.
"Yes," Taura told her before kissing her deeply. Kerin moaned and wrapped her arms around Taura, deepening the kiss.
As winter progressed and spring approached Taura spent most of her free time in the library at the Zariet and at the Mannas. She hoped to find a book written in ancient Tunonien. Taura took what her parents had said seriously. If someone was going to betray her than she was not going to give anyone the opportunity. When she wasn't finishing her lessons, spending time in the libraries or with Kerin, she was with her family. Her grandmother and she had begun a ritual of going for walks in the early morning. Rayma told her stories of her father as he was growing up and of the rest of her family. Taura was beginning to feel as if she belonged.
"Noemi, my father and mother came to me on my quest," she told her grandmother one morning.
"Their souls then are safe in the House of Bellus?"
"Yes, Noemi they are. They told me many things but something they said stuck in my mind."
"What is that keile?"
"They told me not to regret the things we could not change. Do you think my father regretted what had happened between him and Zhruk?"
"I believe on some level he did, mainly because he knew that all Tunonien would be necessary. But I think he may have also realized that we all have tasks. Zhruk's task may well have been to join with your mother against her will and to force the confrontation with Gelen. If he and Gelen had not fought, you would never have been born in the Outland. It was very important to the Prophesy that you be raised outside of Tunon."
"Why is that? Do you know?" Taura asked curiously as they moved down the causeway. She nodded at the greetings absently, focused on her grandmother.
"It has never been said, but I believe from my studies that if you had been raised a Tunonien you would not have formed a bond with the Outland. It is very important for you to have formed a bond with the High Blood Throne and to know the people in the Outland. We Tunonien sometimes can be very shortsighted and don't always see the whole picture. You having been raised out there can understand them; speak with them. That will also make it easier for them to trust you. Learning that the Carussa has returned will not be greeted kindly by some."
"Thank you Noemi, I think I understand now." Taura walked on thoughtfully her mind on what her grandmother had said.
"This thing between you and your khair is it serious?" Rayma asked suddenly. Taura stumbled a bit, surprised by the question. Even though she knew she should not have been, every one of her family had expressed an interest in the budding relationship between her and Kerin. Everyone but Darilas, who had not said a word, had barely acknowledged it.
"Not yet. But it may soon be," Taura answered truthfully. She enjoyed being with Kerin and could imagine spending her life with the Tunonien woman. Rayma nodded.
"So, she is the one? Your Chosen?"
"The one? Maybe, I haven't really given it a lot of thought," Taura shrugged.
"Child, you do neither yourself or Kerin any honor by not thinking about it. You know that Tunonien do not share themselves lightly. If your heart is not completely in this, if your heart still beats for another, than you should not continue with this. Learn from your parents in this."
"But Noemi, how do I know for sure if she is the one?" Taura asked. Rayma looked at her, her eyes boring deep into Taura's.
"keile, if you have to ask then she is not. Your heart will know and all will be clear." The two lapsed into silence and continued on their walk.
The winter rains slowly subsided and lessons came to an end. Taura still had not mastered war magic much to her dismay. She and Darilas had begun to work at it as Taura had far outstripped Kerin's abilities. Each afternoon they would spend time working but Taura could barely master even the rudiments. Darilas told her not to be discouraged as war magic was the hardest of all magic to learn, but Taura could not help it. Since accepting her task she had been driven to learn all that she could, to be ready. She began to fret that she would not be ready in time.
Reports from the Border with Niam did little to assuage her fears. More and more skirmishes were being reported. Each was defeated soundly, but Taura worried how many Niam spies made it across the borders and into the kingdoms. Ehlan sent word frequently to Darilas keeping her informed of the information her Lefor, intelligence agency gathered. The information was scarce; advising only that the altars were once again running in blood as the sacrifices made to the Dark God had doubled. The information did little to assuage her fears.
"They will be here with in the moon," Darilas told Taura. The other woman did not turn from the window. Taura was looking down at the mountain city and its inhabitants. From her vantage point she could see the Tunonien as they went along their way along the causeways.
"I suppose protocol says they will stay here?" she asked. She smiled slightly as a group of laughing children played a game of tag. Her smile grew as she recognized the figure of her cousin Cayne. Taura wished she were down there playing.
"Yes, it does. The Mannas was designed for this."
"It is the largest," Taura agreed softly. "Have all the arrangements been made?"
"Thank you Darilas," Taura said. She continued to look out the window. She watched the people as they talked to friends or family, as they walked toward their homes. A few made their way past the Mannas on their way to the temple of the Triad.
"It is of no matter Carussa."
Darilas' eyes took in the tall young woman as she looked out the window. She had noticed the difference in Taura from the moment she had returned from her quest. Taura held herself differently and her eyes watched everything. She weighed her words carefully and looked at things from all angles before making a decision. A part of Darilas was saddened by the loss of innocence but another part was pleased with Taura's progress.
"No, Darilas," Taura turned to look at Darilas. The older Tunonien tried to hide her frown at Taura's appearance. Her face was drawn and pale and there were dark circles under her eyes. "I appreciate it. In the days to come I will need you more and more, and if I do not get the opportunity to say it, I want to say thank you now."
"We all have our tasks Carussa." Taura sighed and went back to the window.
"I will never be just Taura again will I?" she asked her voice sad.
"You were never just Taura," Darilas told her.
"Carussa, if I may," Darilas began a little uncomfortable.
"Yes Darilas?" Taura her eyes still out the window.
"It is about Kerin."
"Ahh, I see, you want to know what my intentions are. The only person who has not questioned them are Kerin," she said a slight smile on her face.
"Well, what are your intentions?"
"I don't really have any intentions Darilas. We have not talked about the future yet."
"You do her no honor Taura."
"I know Darilas, she knows this as well. But, Darilas, I can not ask her to share a future I am not sure I have," Taura turned to face Darilas, her eyes pleading with her aunt to understand. "I do not know what will happen in the next few days much less the next few years. I may or may not live beyond the Last Battle. How can I ask her to share that?"
"All Tunonien share that task Taura. Are you in love with her?" Darilas asked suddenly, her eyes narrowing.
"In love? No, I don't think so. I do love her, but I'm not in love," she turned to the window, a bitter twist to her lips. "Not any more," she finished softly.
"Taura," Darilas took a step toward her, her heart aching for the hurt she knew Taura was feeling.
"No, Darilas, I appreciate your concern, but this is a matter between Kerin and myself," Taura interrupted. The two women looked at each other, their wills clashing.
"Yes Carussa," Darilas said, finally relenting. She bowed deeply. "It will be as you wish." Taura didn't reply, she just turned and looked back out the window. Some time later Darilas slipped out of the room, leaving Taura alone with her thoughts.
Taura knew she was dreaming. Her spirit soared above the Plains. Below her she watched as the Tunonien Nation, en masse left the Plain and made its way slowly toward the united forces of the six kingdoms. Row upon row of Tunonien left the Endless Plain, never to return. As one the combined armies began its march toward the Border. Once there the massive army met with the forces of the Dark God. As Taura watched a fierce battle raged. Wave after wave of soldiers fell, both Niam and Tunonien. The armies grew smaller as the battle raged. Neither side gained an advantage. Magic scorched the earth as the Dark Priests shot bolts of magic at the gathered army. The Tunonien fought back with their war magic. Bodies littered the ground, the dirt red from the spilt blood. The ground was drenched, it could hold no more. Taura watched sadly as more fell. Suddenly all fighting stopped and silence fell. Taura found herself walking through the battlefield. She saw Darilas, her eyes staring unseeing at the sky, Urra, Kayla, and Cayne all dead. As walked she saw more and more Tunonien, silently she said their names. Kerin, Geni, Sajgo, Doran, Jeral, Gefion and Aliff. The faces started to blend, the names coming faster and faster. Tears began to fall, as she looked down at the battered bodies, each a person, each a friend, or family member.
Taura stopped cold as she caught sight of familiar silver blond hair. She ran to the body, partially obscured by another. With a trembling hand she reached out and touched the body laying over the one she wanted to see. She gasped when she recognized Baran, a large gaping wound in his throat. He had died trying to protect his Bonded. Her eyes fell on the woman beneath him. Taura wanted to cry out, but she could not. Ehlan lay on her back, her green eyes flat, dead. Her clothing was cut, torn and bloody. The wounds were to numerous to count. Her chest though held a gaping hole, where her heart had been. A sob was wrenched from her.
"No," she whispered. "No." A noise caught her attention and she looked up. Standing over her, his hand dripping blood, was Anel. In his hand he held a heart, Ehlan's heart. He was smiling cruelly, his eyes hard, evil shining through from his darkened soul. "By the Goddess, no," she whispered her voice anguished.
"Your Goddess can't help you now, sister," he told her, his once warm voice colder than ice. Anel raised his bloodied dagger and moved toward her.
"NO!" she screamed. Taura sat up, awake. Her heart pounding in her chest, sweat pouring down, stinging her eyes. "Oh Goddess, they are all going to die," she sobbed, tears coming. Taura sat on her bed, sobbing her eyes seeing the mass of bodies.
Finally her tears subsided and she wiped them from her cheeks. She lay back hoping to fall back asleep, but it refused to come. Taura gave up and went into the Mannas' library. She pulled a book from the shelf and sat down. With a sigh she opened the book and began to read. The night moved into morning and still Taura sat, reading, studying.
Taura stood at the top of the lower causeway. Her vantage point gave her a good view of the Plains and the lower village. Word had reached them that the High Queen was in Tunon and should appear at any moment. Taura stood no expression on her face as she looked out. Behind her stood two of her caven, guards who would die before allowing any harm to come to her. Next to her stood Darilas. All were formally attired, Darilas wearing the Aris, the crown of the Carun. It was very similar to the Carussa's crown, except it was bronze and not as finely etched. It was a circlet that set over the brow, etched with sword and staff. The guards and Darilas also wore their Affan, an armband that signified their clan and status. Taura alone wore no trappings. At the Dhala she would earn her Affan and then on the last night of the seven-day festival she would be crowned with the Attul, the silver crown of the Carussa. Until then she wore the normal sand colored breeches, tucked into soft leather boots of the same color, a loose tunic, with a full sleeves that were tight at the wrists. The colors were the colors of the Endless Plains, so no matter where they were they carried with them a part of the Plains. Her vibrant hair was pulled back and tied with a leather string, showing off the planes of her face, the finely etched nose with slightly flared nostrils, almond shaped gray eyes that seemed to almost soak in the light, a firm jaw and full lips.
The te-sudariem had been arriving for days and almost all were in attendance. All but those assigned to the Border would be in Tunon for the Dhala and the coronation. Spread out below was a sea of Tunonien as they waited for the Queen. Standing below Taura and Darilas was the Duma each also dressed formally. The High Priestess Varan was saying a soft prayer to the Goddess. Taura watched as a scout rode up. He dismounted and made his way up the lower causeway to where Taura was standing. Reaching her he bowed deeply.
"Carussa, the Queen has arrived," he told her.
Taura nodded her eyes already able to make out the vanguard of the Queen's procession. He bowed again and left, going to his horse and leading it away. Taura looked down at the gathered Tunon. She saw Kerin looking back up at her. The teacher was standing with Taura's aunt Kayla and cousins Geni and Salis. Kerin had wanted to join Taura but Darilas would not allow it. Stating it would be dishonorable to greet the Queen with Taura if they were not joined. Kerin had looked like she would argue but Taura had shook her head and asked Kerin to wait with her family. With a final glare at both women Kerin had strode angrily away. More and more Kerin and Darilas would clash wills and Taura found herself in the role of peacemaker. It was not comfortable.
Shouts brought her attention back to the matter at hand. Taura watched outwardly impassive as the Queen's entourage rode in. Inwardly she was a mass of quivering nerves. She knew she did not want to see Ehlan but also knew she had no choice. In spite of herself she found her eyes searching for the distinctive silver blond hair. Taura found what she was looking for, riding in the center, Baran riding next to her. Behind them rode a small carriage. They were escorted by the te-sudariem that had been in Borcea and the Queen's own guard. Accompanying Ehlan were other high-ranking officials in her court, a few Tibors and even a few High Councilors. Ehlan looked up almost as if feeling eyes on her. Taura caught her breath as Ehlan's eyes looked deep into her. Taura was unable to look away as the Queen rode closer. Darilas' eyes flickered between the approaching Queen and her Carussa.
The High Queen's entourage slowed to a stop in front of the causeway where Taura stood. Her escorts dropped back. Taura watched as Baran dismounted before holding Ehlan's horse as she dismounted. Taura's lips twitched in memory. As they had traveled Ehlan had taken for granted all the things that had been done for her and had had a hard time at first managing for her self. She missed the tight angry look on Kerin's face as she looked up at Taura. Ehlan's face was unreadable as she also looked up at Taura. A voice caught her attention and she looked away, Taura followed her eyes. A brief flicker of pain crossed Taura's features as she recognized the blond woman climbing out of the carriage. Taura settled her features back into its impassive mask as she watched Ehlan escort Serina over to Baran. The three then moved to the causeway and began walking toward Taura. Her advisors had not wanted her to meet Taura on the causeway, they wanted Taura to come to her, after all she was the High Queen, but Ehlan had not listened.
"Greetings to the Carussa of the Tunonien from the High Blood Throne," intoned Baran as they stopped just below Taura.
"Greetings to the High Blood Throne from the Carussa of the Tunonien," answered Darilas for Taura.
Neither Taura nor Ehlan spoke as each just looked at each other for the first time in moons. Ehlan noticed that Taura looked tired, and she had lost weight. Her heart ached for the tall auburn haired woman. Taura's eyes took in Ehlan, her tall lean frame, slightly broad shoulders, lean hips and full swell of breasts, her almost delicate features. Her heart started pounding in her chest and the trembling in the pit of her stomach grew. The formalities around them went unheard as they looked at each other. Ehlan's eyes softened revealing briefly the emotion she felt for the other woman. Taura responded her eyes also showing how she felt. The contact lasted but a moment before each shielded their emotions and the masks slipped into place.
"Taura it is good to see you," Ehlan said finally after the formalities had been completed.
"And you as well Ehlan," answered Taura. "Come, Darilas and I will show you to the Mannas," she turned quickly not wanting to see Ehlan offer her arm to Serina.
The small group walked up the causeway and headed toward the top most area of the mountain where the large almost castle like residence of the Carussa sat. Once there Taura stepped away as servants escorted the Queen and her court to their quarters. Taura made her way to the large audience chamber, a frown on her face as she entered. She was not surprised to see Darilas waiting for her.
"She had to bring her didn't she?" she asked bitterly. Darilas knew whom Taura was talking about. Taura made her way to the far wall where a table with wine and goblets sat. She poured a large measure and drank it down.
"I suppose," was the soft answer. Darilas watched as Taura poured more wine in the goblet. "You did not sleep last night did you?"
"No, I couldn't sleep. There is still more I have to learn. I spent the night reading all I could find on war magic."
"You must not try so hard Carussa, it will come to you in time."
"That's just it Darilas, I may not have enough time! I've read the Prophesy just as you have," Taura turned to face her father's sister. "Niam could decide at any moment that the conditions of their own Prophesy have been met and rise against us."
"Only one moon has risen red Carussa, the others have not followed, winter did not come early after all, and the noon sky did not darken as if night. The Dark God is still imprisoned," Darilas said naming conditions in the prophecy.
"Yes but for how long Darilas? For how long?" Taura turned away. "It could happen at anytime. The priestesses have all been looking to the stars for answers since the Goddess has not answered them. I say we do not have as much time as you feel we do."
"I have to believe we have time Taura!" Darilas shouted angrily. Taura was a bit taken back. Darilas had never seemed to lose her temper over anything. "I have to believe for to do anything else would be to give in to fear. And that I must not do! I fear we do not have the time, I fear we will not be ready and if I give in to that fear I will be unable to fulfill my task."
"We all have our tasks," Taura said softly. Darilas nodded.
"Yes, Taura we all have our tasks. Mine is to lead the armies of Tunon. And if my fear cripples me than I can not complete my task."
"Will we win Darilas?"
"I can only pray Carussa. I can only pray," Darilas answered her eyes boring into Taura's. They were interrupted by Kerin's angry entrance.
"Taura I wish to speak with you," she said her voice hard.
"Carussa!" snapped Darilas. "You will address her with respect Kerin-cavena!" her eyes were blazing.
"It is not the Carussa I am addressing at this time Darilas, it is my lover Taura," Kerin shot back.
"You are always addressing the Carussa!"
"Enough!" Taura snapped stopping Kerin before she could respond. She longed to go to her tree. "That will be enough from both of you. Darilas would you please find my grandmother and the rest of my family and ask that they join us." Darilas did not take her eyes from Kerin as she nodded. Finally she turned, bowed and left.
"You should not argue with her so much Kerin. After all she is Carun," Taura said once they were alone. She moved back to the wine and poured more for herself before pouring a goblet for Kerin.
"She may be the Carun but it is your aunt that speaks to me," Kerin answered coming to stand close to Taura. "She doesn't like me for some reason and doesn't want us together. I grow tired of her constant sniping remarks."
"She means well Kerin. She wants only what is best."
"Yes, she wants you to be with her," Kerin spat angrily moving away from Taura, her face contorted bitterly. "Don't think I do not know that."
"Kerin it is not for her to decide," Taura said wearily. She and Kerin had fought on more than one occasion about Ehlan since learning that the Queen was coming to Tunon.
"It may not be but she still tries."
"Don't let it bother you Kerin. It is my decision and yours, no one else's," Taura said firmly. Kerin moved closer again, their bodies touching.
"And what is your decision my Carussa?" she asked her voice low, seductive as she looked at the other woman. They were roughly the same height.
"I would have thought that was obvious khair," Taura answered, her eyes on Kerin's lips a smile playing on her own.
"And if she asked you to choose?"
"She has and my answer would be the same as it was then."
"I see. So would I be your choice?"
"There is no choice, Kerin," Taura answered her softly.
She lowered her head and kissed Kerin softly, her lips moving other the other woman's slowly, trying to convince her of her emotions. A soft knock on the door interrupted them. Taura looked up to find Baran standing there, an almost sad expression on his face.
"Baran, come in, Kerin, would you please ask a servant for more wine?" Taura asked without taking her eyes off the Bonded Companion. The tall dark haired man entered the room; his eyes barely flickered in Kerin's direction.
"It's great to see you again Taura," he said before engulfing her in a hug. Taura returned the embrace. She had always liked Baran.
"You are looking well Baran. I missed you," she said surprising herself with how true that was.
"I've missed you too," he smiled, revealing strong white teeth. "We've missed you," he said softly. Taura moved away from his embrace. "It's true Taura. She has missed you."
"Well she has the Lady Serina to keep her occupied," Taura turned her back to Baran moving away. She was surprised at how much that hurt. Taura had thought she had gotten past that.
"And you seem to have someone to occupy you," he said softly his eyes on her as she moved nervously through out the room. She laughed harshly.
"Yes I do, but the difference Baran is that I was free at one time, she was not."
"No, Baran, I don't want to fight about this. It is done and over, the decisions have been made, we can't go back now," she interrupted. "Please," she pleaded her eyes begging him to let it go. He saw the hurt deep in her eyes and nodded.
"Are you nervous about the coronation?" he finally asked, wisely changing the subject.
"A little," she laughingly agreed, grateful he let it go. "They have been going over the ritual with me so much I think I could do it in my sleep."
"I bet they had to pull out a few dusty books to find it," he chuckled.
"That they did," Taura agreed.
Her eyes went to the doorway where a servant was entering with a large tray. Taura moved forward to help with the loaded tray. Baran watched as she helped the servant empty the tray on the table. He watched as the servant bowed and with an awe filled look left the two alone again. He could not help but think that Ehlan could learn a lot from Taura.
"I was surprised to hear that you would be earning the Affan so soon."
"I was too, but the Kaden tell me that there was nothing they could teach me with sword or staff so they were free to concentrate on the magic."
"Your father taught you well then."
"Yes he did, far better than I realized," she answered a momentary sadness in her eyes.
"What's it like Taura?" Baran asked softly. Taura knowing that he was asking about magic, thought for a moment.
"It is peaceful actually," she answered. Baran looked puzzled. "Really, my mind goes blank and things flow around me, I feel safe and protected. It truly is something from the Gods," her eyes grew bright and a brilliant smile moved across her lips. She did not notice when Ehlan entered the room. The Queen stopped at the sight of Taura's smile and caught her breath at the other woman's beauty. Her heart skipped a beat. Baran heard her and looked up and smiled. Taura followed his eyes and the smile slipped from her lips, the mask settling in place. Ehlan was saddened to see it go.
"Hello Taura," she greeted softly.
"Ehlan." Baran moved away to allow the women some privacy, suddenly becoming entranced by a tapestry on the wall in the far corner.
"You look tired."
"And you Ehlan, look amazingly well rested. Serina must be keeping a tight leash on you," Taura shot back, surprised at herself.
"Must be," Ehlan answered noncommittally. She went to the wine and poured herself a goblet, sipping it as she turned back around to face Taura. "Kerin must not be keeping a tight leash on you," she countered with a sarcastic salute of her goblet she drank from it.
"I am keeping her just fine," came Kerin's tight voice from the doorway. Taura turned to see her angry lover. She sighed inwardly knowing that an argument would take place and she did not have the energy to fight it.
"I bet you are," Ehlan murmured sipping her wine. Baran sighed audibly and moved over to stand near Ehlan.
"I've kept her longer than you," Kerin said striding completely into the room her eyes completely focused on Ehlan. "And I intend to keep her."
"We'll see," Ehlan smirked raising a coolly arrogant eyebrow over one green eye. Kerin took a threatening step toward Ehlan, her hand reaching for the dagger at her waist. Baran jumped in front of Ehlan and Taura placed herself in front of Kerin.
"Kerin!" she shouted angrily. "Kerin!" she repeated until Kerin looked away from the smirking Queen. "You may go."
"Taura!" she protested.
"Kerin-cavena!" the Carussa thundered. "Enough, you may go," she ordered, her voice and her eyes hard. Kerin swallowed, stepped back and bowed deeply. She backed out of the room her eyes returning to Ehlan.
"Nice going Ehlan," Baran muttered the tension leaving his body as he moved away from Ehlan. The Queen just chuckled.
"A hot blooded Tunonien, who knew?" she shrugged with a smile. The amazing self-control of the Tunonien was well known. Taura turned to her a frown marring her features.
"I can't believe you Ehlan."
"What? What did I do?" she asked innocently.
"I am not some prize to be fought over," Taura said angrily. "I would appreciate it if you did not deliberately provoke Kerin."
"As you wish Carussa," Ehlan told her, bowing the Tunonien bow. Despite herself Taura laughed at Ehlan's cheeky grin when she rose.
"You are incorrigible."
"Yes, I am," Ehlan answered softly.
The two women looked at each other, becoming lost in the others eyes. Looking between them Baran could feel the connection they shared. It made him feel almost like an intruder to see and feel the naked emotions. Their desire for one another filled the room, pulling at him, it was almost palpable. He felt relief when Darilas entered. Introductions were quickly made and Ehlan managed to charm each member of Taura's family before a servant announced the evening meal.
Baran watched, as during the meal Ehlan and Taura would steal occasional glances at each other. Serina not familiar with the Tunonien custom of eating in silence kept trying to engage those closest to her in conversation. Ehlan finally whispered in her ear, the custom. Baran watched as Taura's lips tightened and she put her head down focusing on the plate in front of her. He sighed softly, knowing this official visit just got longer.
As soon as she could politely do so, Taura excused herself. Ehlan watched as she left the Mannas. Her heart was heavy as she realized Taura was going to look for Kerin. With her mask fully in place she turned back to Darilas and Baran, continuing their discussion on their preparations.
Taura did not head to Kerin's chambers. She continued down the main causeway and headed through the lower village, and made her way to her tree some distance away. With relief she sat down next to the tree, leaning against it. Taura sat as darkness stole over the Plains. Her chest hurt as her heart ached, not for Kerin like she wanted, but for Ehlan. She didn't want to still want Ehlan but she did. With an anguished cry she lowered her head onto her raised knees. Taura wanted to cry but no had no more tears. Behind her closed eyes visions of Ehlan swam. Of their first kiss on the road, of the first time they shared the Blessing, of the pain that had cut through her heart when she learned of Serina. Taura wanted to hate Ehlan but knew she could not. She loved her too much to hate her. Once again the admission tore at her. She wrapped her arms around her knees and laid her head down. The Carussa stared unblinkingly out into the night, not moving as she let her heart break again.
Taura managed to avoid speaking with Ehlan unless people surrounded them. She kept her caven close to her and at least one close blood relation near. As her caven was made up of her clan it was surprisingly easy. Taura had been surprised when soon after her arrival in Tunon her father's te-sudar had arrived with Rayma. Her uncle Doran was the Carus or the leader of the clan and he turned it over to her. She declined the leadership but did accept his offer of his te-sudar serving as caven to the new Carussa. The caven served as guards and personal guards to the Carus or other high-ranking members of a te-sudar. Taura had given a high honor to her uncle by accepting.
Ehlan for her part did not try to speak with Taura. Their conversations were nothing more than political and focused on preparations of the upcoming Dhala. As much as Ehlan wanted to be with Taura another part of her longed to leave to retreat back to Borcea. It pained her to the core to be this close to Taura and not talk to her, not touch her. It made her short tempered and she had a hard time sleeping. It was even more difficult by the knowledge that Taura slept down the hall. The only consolation she had was that Kerin did not spend the night with her. Kerin would visit and they would spend time alone but after a few hours she would return to her own quarters. Even so it took every bit of self-control Ehlan possessed not to stride down the hall and fling open the door and challenging Kerin.
Then there was Serina. She had sent for the honey blond woman in a fit of self-pity when she had first heard of Kerin. Now she was regretting the impulse. Ehlan knew that Serina was waiting for a formal announcement of their Bethrothment but Ehlan found herself hesitating before taking that final formal step. She knew that she was being unfair to Serina but she did not want to face the future alone. Ehlan liked Serina well enough and was the only one she had actually been able to sleep with without seeing Taura's face before her. Well mostly.
The first day of the Dhala dawned bright and clear. A festive feeling pervaded as Tunon woke. Not only was the air full of the laughter of children but with adults as well. Taura awoke with a smile. She loved festivals and this was a big festival by all standards. Taura quickly got up and dressed. She did not want to be late to sign up for the competitions. Darilas told her that the week would be full of races and games and tests of skill with all weapons even magic. On the last day the Carun would crown all the winners with a laurel of grass woven from the Plain itself. This year though the Carussa would take her rightful place on the dais in the arena. All were welcome to compete and Taura was just as eager. She had always wanted to go into Demos and participate in the festivals but her parents had kept her away from them. At first she did not understand but Darilas had told her that during festival times the Tunonien would increase the number of search parties all searching for her. Taura intended to enjoy her first festival to the fullest.
When she entered the dining chamber she was surprised to see Ehlan already there. The Queen did not look up, not noticing Taura in the doorway. Taura watched as the silver blond haired woman toyed with her teacup. There was a sad pensive look on her face. Some small noise alerted Ehlan to another presence and her head lifted, for a moment their eyes locked and the truth was echoed in their depths before the mask slid firmly in place for both of them.
"Good morning," Taura greeted entering the room. She sat down opposite Ehlan. A servant appeared quickly with a cup of tolaz, bowing before leaving the room.
"Goddess met Taura."
"Did you sleep well?" Taura found herself asking. She grimaced as Ehlan raised an amused eyebrow at her, smiling slightly. Taura ruefully chuckled softly and sipped her drink.
"Yes very well, thank you. And you?" Taura blushed.
The two lapsed into silence as servants placed bowls of porridge in front of them. Silently they ate their morning meal. It felt strangely comfortable for the two of them. It was very reminiscent of the meals they had shared in the past. Each felt themselves relaxing and beginning to enjoy each other's company. Some of the tension eased from them.
"Are you competing?" Ehlan asked once they were finished.
"Yes," Taura smiled. "I am sure they will be starting soon. Would you like to come down to the arena with me?" she asked suddenly surprising both of them. Ehlan looked at her, her eyes searching.
"Yes, I would." The two women rose and quickly left the Mannas. They spoke little as they walked down the causeway and followed the other Tunonien on their way toward the arena. The arena was where they were holding most of the games. The arena would fill with spectators who would then move on to the next event. They moved over to the large table that was the sign up area. There was a lot of teasing and cajoling as the young Tunonien saw Taura in their midst.
"You are going to compete Carussa?" asked Gefion from his position on the other side of the table.
"Yes," Taura told him a huge smile on her face.
"And you Your Majesty? Are you competing as well?" he asked.
Ehlan looked flustered before she too agreed. After signing her name she looked up to see Taura smiling happily at her. She would have gladly signed away her kingdom for that smile. Returning the smile she moved away from the table and followed Taura toward the arena. The two missed the looks shared behind their back.
"Archery? You signed up for archery?" Taura asked from their seats in the arena. They were waiting for their events to start. Ehlan laughed.
"Yes, also sword and wrestling."
"Wrestling?" Taura asked incredulous. "I can't believe it."
"Why not? Don't you think I can wrestle?" Ehlan asked innocently, her eyes twinkling.
"I don't know, I've never seen you wrestle."
"You haven't?" Ehlan's smile grew. "Then we may have not done it right."
"Oh stop!" laughed Taura bumping Ehlan's shoulder with her own. "You are so bad."
"Really?" teased Ehlan.
The two shared a warm laugh. Taura felt her concerns slip away. She had gotten a good nights sleep for a change, sleeping through the night. The Carussa also had stayed away from the library. She had been trying to teach herself how to read and speak ancient Tunonien, but had been unable so far to do so. The books she had found in ancient Tunonien did not have any translations. Taura started to get frustrated with the thought but consciously pushed it away. She wanted to enjoy the festival and Ehlan's presence. Baran found them there later as they waited for their turn.
The sprint races were first. The preliminaries were first then the winners of each race met in the final race the next day. Taura cheered loudly for Kerin and her cousin Geni as the women won their races easily. After the start of the long distance run the other competitions began. Taura and Ehlan separated as they went to their separate competitions.
It was late afternoon when the first round of competition had been completed. Taura was talking with her cousins Cayne and Geni when Baran and Ehlan found her. Taura smiled broadly as Ehlan approached them. The blond faltered a step before she returned the smile. Cayne and Geni shared a look; neither had seen Taura smile at Kerin like that.
"Hey there, I saw you in the wrestling pit, you really can wrestle," Taura said when Ehlan reached them. She reached up and brushed some dirt off of Ehlan's shoulder without realizing what she was doing.
"I told you," Ehlan answered a little smugly. "And of course I won my archery round. How did you do? Or need I ask?" she teased.
"I won as well, thank you very much."
"But of course Carussa," Ehlan said bowing gallantly. The others laughed and Ehlan grinned feeling very light hearted.
"Come you two, lets go get something to eat, the dancing will be starting after the ceremony," Geni said, pulling on her cousin's arm. Taura shot a look at Ehlan and shrugged. Ehlan smiled and followed throwing a grin at Baran. The spirit of the festival infecting all of them.
The group moved through the throngs easily, heading over to the food court where numerous merchants had set up their wagons. Taura bought for herself and Ehlan a meat pie filled with fragrant lamb meat smothered in a tangy sauce. The two laughed at the memory of their travels when Taura had to purchase most everything because Ehlan had carried no money. They shared a flagon of ale and told the others of some of their adventures on the road.
"You know I still have that horse Taura," Ehlan said to the woman who walked next to her. After purchasing food the five of them started to walk through an area full of artwork and crafts made by numerous Tunonien. Taura looked at her surprised.
"Yes," she answered stopping at a display of quilts woven with bright colors.
"Looking for a quilt for your joining bed?" the woman asked looking between the Queen and the Carussa. "I have just the one for you two," she moved away and pulled out a beautiful quilt. It was large and strands of gray and green intertwined in circular pattern. She held it up proudly.
"We aren't, uh," Taura tried.
"We aren't ready yet for a joining quilt," Ehlan said when Taura floundered.
"Are you sure Your Majesty?" the woman asked smelling a sale. "It is a beautiful piece."
"Yes I am sure," Ehlan took Taura's elbow and moved her away. Once they were safely past she whispered in Baran's ear. The tall man nodded and melted into the crowd.
"I'm sorry Ehlan," Taura whispered softly, her eyes on the ground.
"It's okay," she answered. Ehlan gently raised Taura's chin with her forefinger and looked down into Taura's somber gray eyes. "Besides I can think of no one else I'd rather be joined with," she said so softly Taura wasn't sure if she had really heard. As the words left her mouth Ehlan knew they were true. She could no longer fool herself into believing she could find happiness anywhere else but with the woman before her.
"Ehlan," she said stepping back breaking the contact. Ehlan sighed.
"I know, I'm sorry."
"It's okay. Let's just enjoy the festival."
"All right. Let's enjoy the festival," Ehlan agreed.
She didn't want to look away from Taura but the other moved breaking the contact. Ehlan caught Cayne's eye and the other woman smiled slightly. The women continued to look around at the artwork joining the throngs of other Tunonien. All around them people would bow when they saw Taura amongst them. They seemed very happy to have her there and many would approach her to talk with her, mainly asking her how she was enjoying the festival or how she did in the competition. Ehlan watched amazed. Her subjects would never approach her like this, and while they seemed to respect her crown they did not seem to love her like the Tunonien did Taura.
"It's not me personally they love, it's the Carussa they love," Taura told her when she commented on it.
"Oh I don't think so Taura, I think it's you," Ehlan said softly. The two fell silent as they moved on.
"Taura! Taura!" cried a young girl running up to them.
"Calsie, that is not how you greet the Carussa," scolded Cayne.
"But she told me I could call her Taura," the little girl protested. Taura laughed.
"It's okay Cayne," she said to her cousin. "Calsie, how are you?"
"I'm fine Taura, but you must hurry."
"Hurry where?" she asked frowning. Calsie sighed exasperated.
"Back to the arena of course. It is almost time," she said. The cousins looked at each other in surprise.
"It's not that late is it?" Geni asked. They looked up at the position of the sun. The ceremony would be start right before sun down. They looked at each other grins breaking out.
"Sorry Ehlan, we have to go," Taura said starting to back away with her cousins. "I'll see you afterwards?" she asked.
"Of course. Go, we'll see you later," Ehlan laughed. With another smile Taura turned and took off at a run behind her cousins. Ehlan chuckled as she headed toward the arena at a much slower pace.
The arena was uncharacteristically crowded. Usually when the Affan was awarded the te-sudar of the student would be present. But everyone wanted to see their Carussa receive her armband. There was expectation hanging thick in the air as Ehlan made her way to the Royal box, just to the left of the dais. Baran, Serina and Ehlan's uncle, grandmother and aunt were waiting. Ehlan greeted them and sat down next to Baran.
"Well?" she asked. He nodded and Ehlan relaxed, she didn't know if there would ever be a time to use the joining quilt, but she wanted it just in case.
As the sun was setting the Kaden elders stepped onto the dais, followed by Varan and Darilas. Once there Varan called for quiet and sent a prayer to the Triad, then to the Goddess to guide the new caven in their task. After the prayer a Kaden motioned and another Kaden led the graduating class in. They stood in front of the dais waiting patiently, their eyes were shining and quite a few had large smiles on their faces. Taura stood with her cousins. Ehlan smiled as Taura laughed at something Geni whispered in her ear.
"You all have finished your training and are now eligible to wear the Affan," Jeral intoned looking down at the gathered group. "You have been tested and each went on your quest. You have been found worthy to wear the Affan. Come now and join our nation!" He shouted. A mighty roar went up from those gathered in the arena. The students themselves added their voices. One by one their khair escorted them to the dais. T aura being at the end watched her fellow students receive their armband.
"I looked all over for you earlier," Kerin said softly. She had joined Taura when the students began to move. All the khair's joined their students.
"I was walking around with Geni and Cayne," Taura answered her. She did not want to fight on this night.
"And her too I suppose."
"Kerin please," Taura sighed. "Listen she is the High Queen, I am the Carussa of the Tunonien, we have to get along, please understand this."
"I'll try, but Taura I see how she looks at you."
"That may be Kerin, but you have to trust me, please?" she asked her eyes begging Kerin to understand. Kerin sighed and nodded. Taura smiled and gently touched her arm. Taura turned her attention back to the ceremony getting more nervous as her time came closer.
A loud cheer rang out as Taura mounted the dais. Taura looked neither left nor right, coming to stand in front of Darilas and Jeral. Darilas smiled slightly at her, as Taura stood tall. Her eyes moved to Varan who came forward with the bronze armband that Taura would wear on her left upper arm.
"Has this cavana completed all lessons put before her?" Jeral asked solemnly.
"Yes Kaden she has," Kerin answered just as solemnly.
"Has she earned the right to wear the Affan?"
"Yes Kaden she has."
"And you will stand for her?"
"Yes Kaden I will." Jeral nodded.
"Step forward cavana," he ordered. Taura complied quickly. "You have earned the right to wear the Affan to be a member of your te-sudar. Do you accept the responsibility of all that entails? Do you accept the responsibility of being a cavena?"
"Yes Kaden I do," she answered her voice strong and clear. At her answer another loud roar of approval broke out. Taura watched as Darilas accepted the armband from the Priestess and stepped closer to Taura.
Taura watched as Darilas held the metal armband. It was a metal circlet open on one end to slip around the arm. It was engraved with the sword and staff as well as the scale with the vine that was on Taura's amulet. As Darilas slipped the armband on Taura could not help the huge smile that broke out. Raising her head she looked into the Royal box, her eyes finding Ehlan's easily. Her smile grew as Ehlan grinned and stood to her feet clapping. The roar of the crowd was deafening as all followed her lead. Still smiling Taura stepped down from the dais, a scowling Kerin following her.
Once she stepped down Taura was surrounded by well wishers. Her cousins were the first to pull her into a fierce hug, followed by her grandmother, uncle and aunt. Kayla held onto her the longest whispering into her ear, when they both pulled back there were tears in their eyes. Taura placed a gentle kiss on Kayla's cheek. Darilas followed Kayla and when she stepped back Ehlan was there. The two shared a look before with a self-conscious laugh Taura hugged the blond woman. Baran offered his congratulations as well. After her family had greeted her, Tunonien after Tunonien wanted to congratulate their Carussa. It was much later when Taura was able to move away from the throngs of people.
"Taura," Kerin said coming up to Taura. The other woman turned away from Kayla and smiled as Kerin joined them. Kerin quickly hugged her. "The dancing has started. Would you like to join me?"
"Yes. Kayla? Are you coming?" she asked her aunt.
"Soon, Taura, go on," she smiled affectionately. Taura grinned and left with Kerin.
"Darilas, have you spoken to her about Kerin?" Kayla asked the Carun after Taura had walked away. Both women were watching Taura as she moved toward the large dancing crowd.
"Yes, she practically told me to mind my own business," Darilas answered tightly.
"I don't like Kerin," sighed Kayla. She turned to look at her friend. "She will not be good for Taura. Even if Taura never joins with the Queen, Kerin is not the one she should be with."
"Have you seen something?" Darilas asked quickly her eyes penetrating. Kayla was a Seer, one who could see into the future, usually not enough to change it, but enough to give an insight.
"No, my gift has been strangely silent," sighed Kayla.
The two women began to slowly move toward the dancing. "But I have watched the two of them. Where she should be giving Taura support she fights with her, dividing her energies. It is not good for either of them. I am afraid Kerin's jealousy will do harm."
"Me too," Darilas sighed.
The two women had witnessed Kerin's jealous outbursts about one woman or another since she and Taura had become intimate. Darilas had thought that by sharing the Blessing it would have made Kerin confident, but it had increased her jealous nature. By silent consent the two women pushed the unpleasant thoughts away as they joined the festival.
"Are you going to dance with the Queen?" Cayne asked her eyes twinkling merrily.
The two cousins were standing at the edge of the dancing area, each trying to catch their breath. The light from the two bonfires was casting shadows over their faces. Taura passed her the wine skin she had just drank deeply from.
"I don't know, probably not," Taura answered, her eyes moving through the dancers. They fell on Ehlan as the blond woman moved around, dancing effortlessly with Baran. Cayne grinned.
"You should, if for no other reason than a political one," she drank from the wineskin.
"Cayne, are you trying to play matchmaker?" grinned Taura, looking at the smaller woman.
"Who me?" her cousin asked pressing a hand to her chest. "I would never," she giggled.
"Yeah right, somehow I don't believe you," Taura laughed.
They both clapped as the dance came to an end. Once more the musicians began another song. Cayne grinned again as they both looked up to see Ehlan standing in front of them. Ehlan looked at Taura, her eyes unreadable. Cayne looked between the two of them, feeling the connection as it flowed between the two.
"Dance with me?" Ehlan asked softly, almost shyly.
Taura, her mouth suddenly dry nodded and put her hand in Ehlan's. The two looked down at their clasped hands each feeling the rightness of it, with a small smile, Ehlan lead Taura to the dance floor. Cayne grinned again as she watched her cousin meekly follow the Queen.
The two reached the dance floor and faced each other. Once their eyes met their surroundings faded away. Nothing else existed for the two but the other. Their eyes still locked, the two began to move to the music. Their bodies moved closer and back again, in time with the music, teasing the other. The gathered crowd watched, almost not breathing as the Queen and the Carussa moved, their bodies seeming to fit together. The Tunonien smiled as they felt the heat from the two women as they moved around the dance floor. Two sets of eyes though were not watching with smiles. Malice dripped from Kerin's blue gray eyes while Serina's eyes were cold and hard.
Taura felt as if she could not catch her breath as Ehlan looked at her. She could see the familiar heat and desire in Ehlan's green eyes. Taura knew her eyes showed the same emotions. She could deny no longer how she felt about Ehlan. She could not deny it to her self or to Ehlan. The things that had kept them apart seemed not to matter now. The obstacles no longer seemed as high. Maybe they could work it out, maybe they could find away to be together to join. Taura surprised herself with that thought. She took a deep breath as they moved closer and then apart as the steps of the dance moved them around the circle. Her body ached for Ehlan's touch, for her kiss. The heat was almost unbearable. Her eyes moved to Ehlan's lips, imagining them pressed against her own, moving down her body. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sudden stoppage of the music, the dance having ended. The two women stopped, Taura blinked trying to get her thoughts under control, breathing heavier than the dance dictated.
"Taura," Ehlan began, her voice husky, her eyes glittering as she looked at the woman opposite her.
Taura swallowed, knowing what Ehlan was asking. She took a deep breath and nodded. Ehlan smiled slowly almost as if not daring to believe. She took a step toward Taura, intent on taking her in her arms, when her movement was stopped. Surprised she looked down, Serina had stepped between them. The smile turned quickly to a frown as Ehlan recognized the other woman. She looked up to see another frown on Taura's face. The other shook her head dazedly as if waking up. Ehlan could see that the moment was broken. With a final look at Ehlan, Taura turned and left the floor. She moved off into the shadows, Ehlan watched her go, her heart breaking.
"Ehlan," Serina said her voice reproachful. "Dance with me," she demanded. Ehlan sighed.
"Do you mean to play me for the fool Ehlan?" asked Serina a few moments later as they moved to the music.
"No, Serina I do not," sighed Ehlan, her eyes trying to search for Taura in the crowd.
"That is not the way it looks from my vantage point," the blond snapped angrily.
"Serina, I have never lied to you," Ehlan pointed out.
"Yes I am well aware of that fact. But Ehlan…"
"No more Serina," Ehlan broke in wearily. "Let us talk about this in private," she looked down at the shorter woman. Serina's eyes narrowed and her lips compressed into a tight line.
"Very well," she agreed and fell silent for the rest of the dance.
Taura moved away from the dancing, moving deeper into the shadows, trying to get her breathing and her heart beat under control. She ran a trembling hand through her hair. She settled the long locks behind her shoulders. Taura could not remember when it had come undone.
"What am I doing?" she asked herself softly. The Carussa paced in the darkness, letting it steal over her, hiding her from view and from her self. "Come on Taura, get control, then you can go back out there." She berated herself as she moved. Taura finally got herself under control and with a deep breath strode back toward the light. She arrived just in time to see Serina and Ehlan leave the dance and head back toward the causeway, which would take them to the Mannus.
It had been a mistake, Ehlan thought to herself. She sat in her sitting room, alone, a single candle providing light. She and Serina had been talking until late in the night. It had been a mistake to contact Serina and to court her again. Ehlan had known it was a mistake the minute she looked at Taura again. Her heart had not been in it and she had done what Taura had always accused her of, she played with some one else's emotions. Ehlan did not feel very proud of herself. She had decided that no matter what happened with Taura she had to let Serina go. It was not fair to either of them. There had been tears on both sides, much to Ehlan's dismay. It had hurt her to hurt Serina. That surprised her. Never before had she been so aware of her actions.
Ehlan sighed before taking a sip from the goblet of wine she held almost negligently. Serina had finally gone to her own room, and Ehlan found herself desiring nothing but to be alone. She had not gone back to the festival, finding she had no heart for it. Growing up had never been as painful as this. All of the things that Taura had said to her came pounding back to her, making her realize for perhaps the first time that everything had consequences. With another sigh she drained the goblet, stood, blew out the candle and went to bed, hoping that the morning would dawn brighter.
Taura lay in her own bed much later. After watching Ehlan and Serina leave the festival she threw her self into the festivities, dancing with every member of her family and many of the gathered Tunonien. She fought to regain her composure and harden her heart to Ehlan. It had not worked. As she lay in her bed alone, having refused Kerin's invitation, she finally gave into the inevitable. Taura wanted to be with Ehlan and no other. Vowing to speak with both Ehlan and Kerin the next day Taura fell into a dreamless sleep.
"Carussa, you must come, Carun Darilas has requested you join her," a servant said bowing low to Taura. The tall auburn haired woman looked up from tucking her tunic into her breeches. She frowned as the servant tried to catch her breath.
"Is everything all right?" she asked.
"I don't know Carussa, the Carun asked me to bring you to the council chambers."
"Very well, thank you," Taura said before turning back to the servant who was helping her dress.
That had been one of the things she still had trouble with, servants to do her every bidding. Once dressed, she followed the servant out of the Mannus toward the council chamber. Already gathered were the council, Baran and Ehlan and members of the High Council. Taura's heart skipped a beat as Ehlan smiled at her. Ehlan looked tired and drawn.
"Thank you Carussa for joining us," intoned Bivin, his scowl firmly in place.
"Carussa, the Queen brings us news from Niam," Darilas said as Taura sat down at the head of the table. Darilas looked over at Baran and Ehlan who sat at the opposite end of the table.
"Yes, Carussa, we have news from beyond the Border," Baran said. "We have managed to get a spy in Niam, and he has sent us the most disturbing news." He looked down at the dispatch in front of him.
"Yes Baran?" Taura asked waiting, she barely acknowledged the servant that placed a steaming cup of tolaz at her elbow.
"Carussa, the news is not good. Niam has been mobilizing their forces. There are checkpoints through out the country and a general call to arms has been sent out."
"How long?" was the soft question.
"Less than a year, maybe less," was the grim answer.
"Do you have numbers?"
"Yes," sighed Baran. The numbers he spoke of staggered Taura and the Tunonien looked at each other in surprise.
"Their priests have been gathering as well I take it?" Taura wanted to know. The priests of the Dark God had magic, evil magic that the Tunonien would have to counter.
"Yes, Carussa. The altars have been kept full. They are even going so far as to award the cassock to those still in the seminary," Baran told her. Niam was swelling the ranks of the priesthood. It was quiet as they let that sit in.
"Is your spy reliable?" she asked turning her eyes to Ehlan.
"Very, it is Joli," she told the other woman. Taura nodded, remembering very well Ehlan's cousin Joli. Taura sat back in her chair, her mind whirling with thoughts.
"We should reinforce the Borders," Taura said softly her eyes turning inward as she thought through the problem. She was not ready; she had not learned enough war magic. They needed more time.
"I have already dispatched more soldiers," Baran told them.
"Thank you, Darilas, how many?" Taura asked turning her attention to her Carun who sat at her right.
Throughout the morning the council discussed their options. The High Council urged caution, perhaps sending emissaries to Niam. The Tunonien Duma called for immediate action, going so far as to suggest a full out attack of Niam while they were still mobilizing. In the end, Ehlan agreed to send word to the Kingdoms to start their own mobilizations. Tinesse as the High Kingdom was always prepared; they were just awaiting their orders. It was late afternoon before they rejoined the festival.
Taura and Ehlan found themselves walking together as they made their way toward the arena, hoping that they could still compete today. They were silent as they walked side by side, each content to be near the other.
"Shouldn't you be looking for Serina?" asked Taura finally. There was no censure in her voice, no anger. Ehlan chuckled softly.
"I don't think Serina would welcome my attention right now."
"You were right Taura," Ehlan sighed, her head held high, as she stared ahead. "I have told Serina that she is not who I want to spend my life with, it hurt her but it was better this way. I should never have let her believe we would join. It was very cruel of me," she finished softly. Taura didn't reply just took Ehlan's hand in hers and squeezed gently. The two silently headed toward the arena, hand in hand.
The two rulers where able to join the competition and the afternoon flew by as each advanced to the next round of their respective contests. At the feast that evening they found themselves across the table from one another. Each time they tried to speak with each other, someone would claim their attention, after the fourth or fifth time Ehlan just grinned and shrugged. As the feast went well into the night, each conceded that now was not the time to have the talk they each knew they should have.
Ehlan and Taura found no time to be together during the next three days of the festival. Taura's presence was much in demand. She had to preside over the judging of the crafts, and to judge the costume contest that the children engaged in every Dhala. Even though they did not spend anytime together the two were very much aware of the other. Taura would look up and see Ehlan watching her; they would share a smile and turn back. Ehlan would raise her eyes and see Taura smiling at her from across the room. There was a feeling of anticipation between them that the others noticed as well. They missed the knowing smiles shared behind their backs. And Taura missed the smoldering anger in Kerin's eyes.
Taura opened her eyes, blinking as she struggled to wake. Today was the day. A slow grin spread over her lips as she sat up. Today was the last day of the festival and at noon she would stand in the arena and be crowned with the Attul. Taura found herself strangely excited. The months of not really wanting this had disappeared. Now she knew that this was her task and she had accepted it. She got up from the bed and washed the sleep from her eyes, a knock on her door called her attention. Kerin entered, her eyes stormy.
"Why have you been avoiding me?" she asked without preamble.
Taura sighed. Today of all days she did not want to fight with Kerin. She had been meaning to speak with Kerin, but had been unable to find the right time.
"I haven't Kerin, I've been busy," Taura answered truthfully turning back to her dressing table. A servant had entered after Kerin and began pulling out Taura's clothes for the day.
"It's her isn't it?" Kerin asked suddenly. Taura sighed again.
"Kerin, please," she turned to face the other woman. Her heart ached for Kerin. "I haven't had time to speak with her either," Taura told her honestly.
"Taura, tell me, please," Kerin whispered softly. Taura shot a look at the servant before turning back to Kerin.
"Kerin," she began. Another servant at the door interrupted her.
"Carussa," she bowed. "The Priestess Valeus says it is time," she told Taura.
Taura was to go to the temple and pray to the Triad before going through a purification ritual. Once the ritual was complete she would be then left alone in the temple to pray once more to the Triad before making her way, alone to the arena where the Priestess would be waiting to crown her with the Attul.
"Thank you, Meria," she said to the bowing servant. Taura turned back to Kerin. "I have to go, Kerin. We will talk later, I promise."
Kerin looked at her for a moment before sighing. She nodded and moved to go. Taura stopped her with a hand to her arm. Taura looked at her, her eyes searching Kerin's before placing a light gentle kiss on Kerin's lips. Kerin pulled Taura into a fierce embrace before leaving.
Taura entered the temple and stood facing the altar, her stomach fluttering nervously. It was dim in the temple and the air was cool. The altar was a stone table about waist high and on the surface three candles burned. Three white candles were kept lit at all times by the novitiates. The candle in the center was larger and taller while the two flanking it were the exact same height. A silver chalice sat in front of the candles. It represented the cup the Gods shared as they created the races of men. Behind the candles were three small stone statues, one for the Goddess and the other two representing the Twin Gods, Mirus and Bellus. The altar was in the back of the temple on a raised dais. The steps leading up to the dais ran the length of the back wall of the temple. Along the bottom step on either side were small lit candles, placed there by worshippers praying for a special boon from the Triad.
Along the walls were full sized statues of the Triad. Stone benches were placed on either side, going back toward the door that Taura had entered, leaving clear the path to the altar. Taura stood letting the goodness she felt in the temple invade her soul. Suddenly appearing from the side of the dais Varan looked down at Taura.
"Come, my child, we must pray," Varan said softly.
Taura made her way toward the altar and knelt in front of it. She lowered her head as Varan gave the benediction over her. The ritual prayers went on as Varan sprinkled water from the chalice over Taura's head. Taura lost all track of time as prayer after prayer was said.
"Come my child," Varan's voice drifted to her.
Taura lifted her head and blinked. She rose somewhat stiffly and followed Varan. The priestess led her through a door to the side of the altar. There they were met with novitiates that reached for Taura, intent on undressing her. She looked up surprised at the priestess who nodded. Quickly the novitiates undressed Taura and lead her naked down a hallway. The hallway was lit with candles in sconces on the wall. There were tapestries on the wall, each depicting the Gods as they created the world and the races. Taura would have liked to stop and look at them but she was lead resolutely on.
They stopped at a wooden door that had been etched with the symbol of the Triad a circle with a triangle inside. The circle was the symbol for everlasting life; the triangle represented the three Gods. Varan opened the door and gestured Taura inside. Inside was a round pool of water. Steam rose gently from it.
"It is time to bath away your impurities, my child," Varan told her.
The novitiates removed their robes and lead Taura down the steps deeper into the water. In the center of the pool the women surrounded her and in silence bathed her. Varan stood watching, all the while praying.
After the bath Taura rose from the water and moved to stand in front of Varan. The novitiates began to towel her dry, soaking up all excess water. The moved her to sit on a low bench while one combed out her wet hair. Afterwards they dressed her in the traditional Tunonien clothes. Sand colored breeches, a tunic with loose sleeves, tight around the wrists, supple wheat colored leather boots, all the colors of Tunon. Taura watched as one of the women slipped her Affan on her arm. They tied her hair back with a leather thong once she was dressed. Completely clothed Taura turned back to Varan. The priestess smiled and led the way back through the door and down the hallway. They once more entered the temple.
"You must pray now my child. Empty your mind and seek only the Goddess' blessing," Varan told her. Taura nodded and moved in front of the altar again, kneeling down. She lowered her head and began to pray. Silently Varan and the novitiates left, leaving Taura alone in the Temple.
"It is time my child," the Goddess' voice said softly in Taura's ear. "Are you ready? Are you ready to face your destiny and begin your task?" she asked.
"Yes my Goddess, I am ready," Taura answered firmly, her eyes still closed, her head bowed.
"Go with my Blessing my child," the voice faded away. Taura heard the soft falls of a novitiate behind her.
"It is time," she said softly.
Taura did not open her eyes, or raise her head. She wanted to let the feeling of the Goddess' Blessing linger a moment longer. Finally she lifted her head and rose. She nodded to the robed novitiate and left the Temple. Taura walked down the causeway. It was strangely deserted as Taura made her way down. She had grown used to being followed everywhere she went and now found her self missing the silent presence of her caven. At the bottom of the cause way she found her weapons waiting for her. The auburn haired woman slipped her father's sword on, settling it over her back. Taura picked up the staff and with a deep breath headed off toward the arena.
A sudden hush fell over the gathered clans of Tunon as Taura entered the arena. Taura looked neither right or left, her eyes stayed focused on the people on the raised dais. Darilas stood in the center, behind her stood the Priestess Varan, the Priest to the Temple of Mirus Usel and the Priest to the Temple of Bellus, Yorik.
Taura walked steadily toward the dais her eyes never leaving Darilas' as she moved deeper into the arena. She stopped just before reaching it. With one fluid motion she drew her sword and dropped down, kneeling. She placed her sword on one side, the staff on the other, and crossed them in front of her. Taura bowed, her forehead touching the crossed weapons.
"Who comes before the Tunonien?" asked Darilas, her voice carrying over the crowd.
"I do," Taura answered without lifting her head.
"Do you feel worthy of the Attul?"
"Do you accept your duty?"
"Do you accept your task?"
"Rise," Darilas said. Taura stood easily, her weapons still on the ground. She would meet this weaponless.
"Taura te'Muira, we find you worthy, of the Attul. Come and accept your birthright!" The mighty roar of the gathered clans drowned Darilas' voice out. Taura walked to the steps of the dais and steadily mounted them, finding herself face to face with Darilas. The Priest Usel stepped forward holding a silver chalice. He made the symbol of the Triad on her forehead, all the while speaking the Benediction of the God Mirus. Usel anointed her forehead with a drop from the chalice and drank from it. He handed it to her and finished the benediction as she sipped from the chalice.
Usel stepped back and the Priest Yorik stepped forward. He began the Benediction of the God Bellus, making the symbol on her forehead as well. Yorik also drank from his chalice before handing it to Taura. Once his benediction was complete he too stepped back.
So enraptured with the scene before them the people in the arena did not notice as they noon sky started to darken, ever so slightly almost as if the sun had gone behind a cloud. They watched as Varan stepped forward with her chalice. As one they gasped their eyes moving upward as a large winged bird swooped down. The Zevolo circled overhead dipping down low to almost brush Taura's head. It circled three times before rising and flying out of sight. With a small smile Varan began the Benediction of the Goddess Valeus. After Taura sipped from the third chalice Varan stepped back and joined the two Priests. Silence once more descended on the crowd. Taura felt her heart start to pound.
Darilas stepped forward and for the first time Taura caught sight of the Attul. Her eyes could not seem to look away. Once that circlet was placed on her head, there would be no going back. Everything would change, yet nothing would. Taura stood still as Darilas approached. For the first time she noticed the light getting dim. Some in the arena were also beginning to notice at it got steadily darker.
"You have accepted your task Taura te'Muira. You have accepted your destiny. Do you accept the Attul?" she asked.
"I do," answered Taura, her voice strong and clear.
With a twinkle in her eye Darilas stepped to Taura and lifted the circlet over her head. She turned in a slow circle the circlet above Taura's head. Turning back to Taura she lowered the circlet slowly until it settled on her brow. A loud cheer burst forth as the circlet was lowered. Just as Darilas released the circlet the arena was plunged into sudden darkness as the sun was completely hidden by the larger moon. Cries and gasps of surprise rang out as all eyes looked up. The Priests and the Priestess shared a look. The stargazers had not seen this. The alignments had not shown that this occurrence would happen this day.
The gathered clans knew what this meant. With the return of the Carussa the Dark God would begin to break free of the light that bound him. As suddenly as sun slid behind the moon did it slide out. The day was suddenly filled with a dazzling bright light. A sunbeam broke free and fell fully on Taura, bouncing off the silver circlet bathing her in its radiance. The sudden panic that had washed over the gathered clans fell away as they saw their Carussa bathed in a golden glow. The light surrounding her grew brighter, white hot in its intensity. A loud call from above drew their attention as once again the Zevolo circled above. This time though two others joined it. The three birds swooped low and circled Taura, moving in and out of the sunbeam that fell fully upon her. As one the crowd found their voice and they chanted Carussa! Carussa! Their voices soared high into the daytime sky. Taura stood, her head high, the circlet on her brow, resting heavily on her head. She knew though that she was worthy of the task set before her. Her eyes moved over to the Royal Box, and her eyes caught Ehlan's. Everything around them fell away as they looked at each other, their hearts in their eyes for all to see.
It was much later before Taura actually was able to think about what had happened. All the contests were complete, the laurels handed out, and the feast was winding down. The council had met and discussed the eclipse for hours, couriers left in a hurry. Now she was able to take a deep breath and look around. The circlet crown sat heavy over her brow. Every now and then she found herself reaching up to touch it lightly, still not sure if she believed it was sitting upon her forehead. The Tunonien were a merry bunch this evening. Wine flowed freely and several had burst into song. Their long wait for the Carussa was finally over. Taura had watched as more than one had looked over at her, admiration, adoration and loyalty shining in their eyes. Some were openly weeping as they looked at her sitting at the head of the main table, the silver circlet shining.
"Walk with me?" came a soft voice. Taura instantly knew whom it was, the shiver of anticipation giving Ehlan away before she spoke. Taura looked up and nodded. She stood and placed her hand in Ehlan's. Quietly she told her caven to wait for her.
Silently the two slipped away, hand in hand. Taura led the way toward her tree, waiting to share the special peace she achieved there with Ehlan. They didn't talk until the reached the large tree on the banks of the creek.
"It was a very nice ceremony," Ehlan said almost self consciously as they stopped.
"I don't really remember much," chuckled Taura.
"I can understand that, I don't remember any of my coronation." The two fell silent again, as they listened to the running water.
"It's nice out here," Ehlan commented taking a deep breath, for the first time they were completely alone and she was nervous.
"Yes, it is. This is where I come when I want to be alone. I feel very close to my parents here. Darilas told me this is where they would meet."
"You still miss them," it wasn't a question.
"Yes," Taura sighed sadly. "It was very hard when I first got here. Everyone wanted to talk about them and Kayla is my mother's twin. It was very painful to look at her."
"I'm sorry," Ehlan was at a loss of what to say. She gave a gentle squeeze to the hand that was still in hers.
"Thanks," Taura whispered more for the sentiment than the words. The two looked at each other for the first time and the familiar spark passed between them. Time lost all meaning as they looked at each other.
Slowly they moved closer to each other, their lips touching ever so lightly. They stayed like that, close, barely touching, neither deepening the kiss. Softly their lips began to move, sliding easily, silkily as each began to explore the familiarity of the other. Taura made a soft sound in the back of her throat as the kiss deepened. The passion they felt, always just below the surface exploded as their mouths ravaged each other.
"Taura, oh Taura, novona," Ehlan whispered her lips moving down Taura's throat. "I have been lost without you."
"I've missed you Ehlan," Taura answered, her fingers threading through Ehlan's silver blond hair.
"I can not be without you Taura. Please say you will be mine," Ehlan roughly demanded before her lips returned to Taura's and drank deep as if she were dying of thirst.
"Ehlan, there is still so much…" Taura began. Ehlan stepped back, her eyes blazing.
"No Taura, I will let nothing stand in the way, you must be mine!"
"But Ehlan what of your Throne? What of mine? We can not ignore that," Taura pointed out, her eyes pleading with Ehlan.
"We don't have to ignore it."
"It is impossible for us to be together now, the Antranik is almost upon us Ehlan. You can not expect me to turn my back on my task."
"I can't be without you Taura," Ehlan said stubbornly.
"You do expect me to give up my crown!" Taura took a step back, amazed. "You expect me to turn away from my destiny! Is my crown less important than yours?"
"Taura, I can't be without you," she repeated. "I am not asking you to give up your crown. I will step down from the High Blood Throne. I have to be with you and if it means giving up my Throne I will do so," she told Taura, reaching for her hands, holding them tight, her eyes glowing with the truth of her words. Taura was stunned.
"But, you have wanted the Throne since birth," Taura stammered, trying to clear her thoughts.
"I don't care Taura, it all means nothing to me if I can not be with you, I love you Taura."
"Ehlan," she whispered, tears coming to her eyes, she had wanted to hear those words from Ehlan for so long.
"Say you love me too, Taura, say the words and all that I am will be yours, my crown, my body, my heart and my soul."
"You would give up your crown for me? So that we can be together?"
"Yes," Ehlan said fiercely her eyes pinning Taura. "I will have a child and abdicate to her, Baran can be her Regent and we can be together always. Say the word Taura; say the word and I will be yours. I cannot live without you and I can no longer fill the void with others."
The two women looked at each other, Ehlan her green eyes blazing. Taura's gray eyes searching Ehlan's not daring to believe, tears falling softly as her heart swelled with love. She smiled her lips splitting into a grin. Ehlan smiled back her heart soaring. Taura opened her mouth to speak, but before the words came a sound behind her drew her attention. Taura turned and her eyes grew wide as a hooded figure rushed toward her. Ehlan trying to see around her was too late in pushing her aside. The figure raised an arm, steel glistening in the moonlight. With out a word the dagger sunk deep into Taura's upper chest. Crying out in rage Ehlan drew her sword and with two strokes the assassin was dead. She dropped her sword and fell to her knees next to Taura.
Taura's eyes were glazed and pain filled as she looked up at Ehlan's face. Tears fell unheeded from Ehlan's eyes. The Queen looked down at the gaping wound. Blood was pouring from it; she could not tell how bad it was.
"Taura, love, I need to get you back, you stay with me now, do you hear me?" begged Ehlan, her voice ragged. Her heart was breaking with the thought of losing Taura. "Taura you hold on!" Carefully she picked Taura up, cradling her in her arms. Whispering words of love and encouragement she began the long trek back.
Cries of dismay greeted the Queen as she entered the firelight from the festival. Ehlan carefully lowered Taura to the ground as Tunonien rushed toward their fallen Carussa. Rough hands tried to push Ehlan away, but she resisted.
"Get Darilas and get a healer now!" she shouted angrily, she looked down and brushed a sweat soaked lock of hair from Taura's forehead. "Taura, you are safe now, please just hang on. Don't leave me now, the Prophesy needs both of us and if you give up and go to Bellus I will surely follow," Ehlan said softly, tears running unchecked down her cheeks. Taura's face was pale and her eyes looked large. She raised a bloodstained hand and gently stroked Ehlan's cheek before grimacing in pain, her eyes closing. A crowd had gathered around their fallen ruler.
"Taura!" cried Darilas, falling to her knees on the other side. She quickly checked the wound. "How did this happen?" she demanded her eyes blazing.
"We were attacked. A hooded assassin came out of the night, behind her, before I could react he had stabbed her," Ehlan sadly related her eyes still on Taura watching her struggle for breath.
"Where is the assassin?"
"Dead, near a tree," was the answer. Darilas shouted for someone to retrieve the body. The healer joined them and gently pushed Ehlan to the side. Ehlan barely registered Baran's approach her eyes were on Taura as the healer worked over her.
"It is near her heart. We must get her to the Mannus quickly," the healer said softly to Darilas. The Carun nodded grimly and ordered a litter brought. The crowd watched in anguished silence as the litter was brought and Taura was carefully put on it. They followed still silent as the prone body of their new Carussa was carried to the Mannus.
"Taura, by the Goddess," cried Kerin pushing her way to the litter as it made its way up the main causeway. She gave a cry seeing the pale figure lying almost lifeless. "Taura!" Kerin moved to the litter reaching for Taura's hand. "Who did this to you?" she demanded. Kerin looked up her eyes blazing as they fell on the Queen, Taura's blood still on her clothes and on her face. "Did you do this?" she demanded. Ehlan's eyes narrowed dangerously.
"We were attacked," the Queen said tersely as she made to follow the already moving litter. Kerin blocked her path. Ehlan looked down at her, raising a silky eyebrow, her eyes showing her barely contained rage. Baran moved to stand next to her. Kerin looked between the two and worry for Taura won out over her jealous anger and she moved aside. Ehlan hurried to catch up.
Ehlan was pacing in front of the closed door to Taura's bedchamber much later. She had not changed and her shirt was still soaked with Taura's blood. The shirt was stiff with the dried blood. Baran sat on a bench against the wall watching her concerned. There were two guards on either side of the door and they stared grimly ahead. Each felt keenly their failure to protect Taura.
"What could be taking so long?" Ehlan growled for the third time.
Baran did not answer as he watched her pace. Kerin stood leaning against the opposite wall her hard eyes never leaving the pacing Queen. They watched as yet another Tunonien healer entered the room. Ehlan tried to see into the crowded chamber but someone was blocking her view. With a sob of frustration, she returned to her pacing.
Taura felt at peace. She felt no pain and there was nothing but the sensation of floating. The blue sky soared above her as huge white, ponderous clouds floated by. Taura felt as if she was floating along with them. She had never felt such warmth, such peace; she knew this is where she belonged. Time was meaningless as she gently moved with the clouds. Taura felt a smile move across her face. She sighed with contentment.
"You know you can not stay here my child," came a man's voice. The voice was huge, yet small at the same time. "Now is not the time for you to come to my House, my child, your task is as of yet unfulfilled." Taura frowned as she realized what the God Bellus had said. Why was she in his House, surely she could not be dead.
"Am I dead?" she asked her voice strangely emotionless.
"Nay my child, you are not dead. It is time though that your soul rejoined your body. There is something of the gravest importance that I must ask you to do."
"I will do as you ask," Taura agreed without hesitation.
"Your eagerness is a great asset to you my child. But I fear this may be hard for you. You must not allow the Queen to release her crown. You must not accept this offer she has made to you. Her destiny will go unfulfilled if she steps down from the Throne and the realms of Man need you both," Bellus told her, his voice grave and serious.
"But, we love each other, we want to be together," protested Taura.
"Yes my child we know this. But if the Queen steps down the six kingdoms will be plunged into disarray and the alliance will fall apart. If that should happen the Blessed Tribe would be forced to face the armies of our brother alone, if that should come to pass the Blessed Tribe would surely fail, your dream of your brother holding the Queen's heart will come to pass. You must not accept this offer," Bellus repeated. Taura felt as if her heart was breaking. The thought of being apart from Ehlan was causing a physical pain.
"Do not grieve my child, this is but a small portion of your task," Bellus said sadly, feeling her grief.
"I understand," Taura answered softly, her heart breaking yet again.
"It is time for you to return, my child. You go with our Blessing," with that the God vanished and Taura felt herself falling. Her eyes snapped open as she felt herself slam back against the pillows. She looked around, Darilas stood next to the bed looking down at her, concern etched into her face.
"How bad?" Taura croaked, her throat strangely dry.
"It was deep Taura, but no permanent damage," was the answer. "The blade missed your heart by inches." Taura nodded and closed her eyes.
"And the Queen?" she asked, unable to bring herself to say Ehlan's name.
"She is unhurt Taura. She dispatched your attacker."
"Who was it?" the room fell silent as all looked to Darilas to answer.
"It was one of the Queen's servants," was the soft answer. Taura closed her eyes again.
"Does the Queen know?"
"Not yet, the Duma are blaming her, I fear that our relationship with the Blood Throne is in danger."
"We must not let that happen Darilas. I am positive that the Queen had nothing to do with this," Taura's voice was firm, belying the grayness of her skin. "You must not let them do anything rash."
"Yes Carussa," Darilas said bowing, touching her heart then her head. "The Queen is waiting outside, may I bring her in?"
"No," Taura finally answered, closing her eyes again. "I wish to see no one," with that she fell into a pain induced sleep.
"How is she?" demanded Ehlan when Darilas emerged from the room.
"She is out of danger. The blade missed her heart; the healers say she will be fine. In a few days once she has regained her strength they will complete the necessary healing."
"Thank the Goddess," breathed Ehlan. She took a deep breath and moved toward the door, but Darilas stopped her.
"The Carussa wishes to be left alone to rest Your Majesty. She has asked that we keep all visitors away for now."
"But I must see her!"
"I am sorry Your Majesty," Darilas insisted. Ehlan looked as if she would argue the point before nodding grimly. Kerin shot a triumphant look at the angry Queen and moved toward the door. Darilas stopped her as well.
"The Carussa was most clear when she requested no visitors," Darilas said firmly, her dislike for the other Tunonien woman chilling her tone.
"I am sure she did not mean me," was the smug response.
"She said no visitors, she mentioned you specifically Kerin," Darilas replied, her own smugness filling her voice. Kerin looked stunned, then stormy as she stalked off. Ehlan was too worried to even give her a passing thought.
"She is going to be all right Darilas isn't she?"
"Yes Ehlan, she will be fine. Come we have many things to discuss," she turned and after speaking softly with the guards led the Queen and her Bonded away from the Carussa.
"You're joking, aren't you?" Ehlan asked angrily facing the Tunonien council.
"What are we to think Your Majesty? He was one of your servants."
"He was actually a servant to the Lady Serina," she pointed out. "Nevertheless, what would I hope to gain by killing Taura? Especially since I have asked her to join with me," her statement was met with incredulous silence. The council looked around at each other as if unsure how to answer.
"Has she agreed?" Varan asked, her eyes boring into Ehlan's.
"Not yet, she was about to when we were attacked. But the fact remains, I would not try to harm Taura, the High Blood Throne has much too loose with her death."
"How do you explain one of your servants trying to kill her?" asked another council member.
"I believe I may have an answer to that," Baran spoke up. The council turned to him. "The decision for Lady Serina to accompany us was a last minute one. Her servants were relatively unknown to us. Lately we have discovered spies within the palace. I fear that we may have inadvertently allowed a spy to accompany us," he informed them his voice filled with self loathing. It was silent as they pondered this.
"This can not go unpunished, our honor demands it," Bivin growled, his swollen hands hidden under the table.
"How do you propose to punish the High Blood Throne?" scoffed Varan.
"The Carussa is the one to demand honor," Darilas supplied softly, for the first time speaking up. "The Carussa has advised me that she holds no ill will toward the High Blood Throne, she feels the assassin was not working with their knowledge." Ehlan looked at her gratefully, she did not want relations with the Tunonien to deteriorate, not now, not this close to the Antranik.
The debate ran long and heated as each side vented. Ehlan sat in her chair anxious to get the whole thing behind them, wanting to be with Taura more than anything now. She had had no time to inform Baran of her intentions of stepping down. Ehlan knew she would have to tell him soon so that plans could be made. With the eclipse he would need to leave as soon as possible to get back to Borcea to oversee the mobilization. She planned to tell him before it was time to leave. With barely concealed impatience Ehlan turned her attention back to the fighting council members.
Taura awoke the next morning feeling sore. She sat up with a groan and her fingers moved along the bandage. She knew she had been very lucky. Taura looked around and saw that she was alone in the room except for a healer, sitting in a chair next to the bed.
"Carussa, you are awake."
"Yes, may I have some water?" she asked. The healer hurriedly poured water into a goblet. She helped Taura drink her fill. Taura lay back feeling better. "I need to speak with Darilas, please send someone for her," she ordered softly. Taura closed her eyes to hide the pain she felt, pain not only from her wound but also for what she knew she must do.
Darilas reached her moments later. The Carun advised her of the meeting with the council. Taura nodded and thanked Darilas for imparting her wishes. With a sigh she told Darilas she needed to speak with Ehlan. She was dreading the conversation she knew she would have to have. Taura was sitting up when Ehlan entered. Ehlan's face broke into a grin when she saw Taura. The Queen rushed to her bedside and sat down gingerly taking Taura's hand in hers.
"I am so sorry Taura," she began, placing a kiss on the back of Taura's hand.
"It was not your fault. Ehlan," she started, hating herself. "We have to talk."
"We will have plenty of time to talk my love. Baran is to return to Borcea tomorrow, you and I will have all the time in the world."
"Ehlan, you cannot give up your Crown."
"The High Blood Throne is meaningless to me, Taura, nothing matters but you," Ehlan told her, her green eyes shining with the truth of her words. Taura hid her pain as she looked at Ehlan.
"Ehlan, you must go back with Baran," she said softly her eyes boring into Ehlan's.
"No, Ehlan, I cannot join with you, I, uh, I do not love you," she broke in, the lie painful in her ears, the words sounding false. Ehlan was stunned, the color drained from her face.
"I do not believe you," she whispered painfully. Taura removed her hand from Ehlan's grasp.
"It's true Ehlan, I can not join with you as I am to be joined with Kerin," she said in a rush.
"You are lying Taura," insisted Ehlan. "I know you love me. Your eyes have told me so more often than your lips, your body melted into mine. I know you love me."
"No Ehlan," insisted Taura. She felt sick to her stomach as she watched the emotions flicker across Ehlan's face, anger, dismay, pain, all were reflected there.
"Was it a joke to you?" whispered Ehlan, her eyes stricken. "Was my profession of love a joke to you? Did you laugh inside as I said the words you accused me of never feeling?" her voice rose in anger as she rose from the bedside. "You played me for the fool!" she spat backing away.
"Ehlan, I never laughed," Taura answered her truthfully, wishing she could she stop this pain. The wound in her chest was nothing to the wound that was being opened in her heart.
"Then join with me!"
"I cannot, to join with you when I do not love you would be a lie," Taura told her. Ehlan looked as if she had been slapped. She looked down at Taura, her eyes filling with tears. The Queen threw her shoulders back and lifted her chin arrogantly.
"I will trouble you with my presence no longer," she said stiffly formal.
Ehlan moved to the door, her hand on the knob. Taura watched as her shoulders slumped dejectedly and her head lowered. Ehlan looked as if she was going to say something but changed her mind. With out a backward glance Ehlan left the room. Taura was too hurt to cry as she stared at the door, hoping that Ehlan would come back through the door. The next day the Queen left, never looking back, leaving her heart broken on the Plain.
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