The Sword and the Staff
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!
I've also added a glossary of sorts, hope it helps.
Affan: armband which symbolizes Caven, te' sudar, and rank
Antranik: Battle of Souls
Aris: silver headband, worn by the Carun
Attul: crown of the Carussa
Borsuk: board game, similar to chess
Carun: the War Wizard of the Tunonien
Carus: Leader of a clan or te' sudar
Carussa: Ruler of the Tunonien
Caven: fighting units, also indicates a male member of the Caven
Cavena: female member of a Caven
Dhala: A festival in Tunon
Govan: election of the Tunonien councilors, happens during the Dhala
Duma: the High Council of Tunon
Haquet: secret society based on an ancient civilization that believes men to be superior to all. Believes High Blood Throne belongs to Lyssia.
Hayxa Sea: the ocean that borders Tinesse.
Indira: the time of mourning
Kaden: A master teacher, can be used as a title
Kerage: A gathering of all lower kingdoms and Tunon in Borcea. Laws are made, passed, border disputes settled, festivals are held, games and balls. Occurs every 3rd year.
Khodr: Sword and the staff. Also the name of the birthmark that is shaped like a crossed sword and staff and will identify the Carussa
Kutun: mental communications between clan leaders. Telepathy magic
Lefor: secret intelligence agency of the High Blood Throne
Mannas: the Carussa's residence. The Rock Throne sits there.
Novona: Beloved one, a loved one or lover
Sherea: the festival of the Harvest
Sudarien: a member of a Tunonien clan
Te' sudar: a Tunonien clan or fighting group
Te'sudarim/Te'sudaren: All Tunonien clans
Tes' muis Valeus: May the Goddess greet you. A Tunonien greeting
Thian: A servant with no honor, it is a punishment
Thias: A Tunonien that has lost all honor, all place within Tunonien society, the worst punishment other than death
Tibor: lord or lady of the Realm, can be a landowner
Tolaz: Hot, coffee type drink
Zariet: the Tunonien academy where they are taught to use their weapons and magic
Zevolo: a scared bird found in Tunon
THE BATTLE OF SOULS
The seasons passed with out joy for Ehlan. Spring came and went summer crawled along, and autumn stumbled in. Couriers were beating a path between the kingdoms and Tunon. The news was increasingly bad out of Niam. For a while all mobilization had stopped. After the eclipse the priests had retreated to the churches and were rarely seen outside. But with the coming of winter their activities increased. Joli had sent frequent dispatches, which sent chills down Ehlan's spine as she saw the numbers.
When she arrived back from Tunon Ehlan had retreated to her chambers and had not exited them for days. When she did emerge her eyes were red rimmed and she looked as if she had not slept for days. Baran was very worried about her as she moved through her days as if in a daze. He tried to talk with her about what had happened but she refused to speak with him. Something had changed inside her in Tunon. Ehlan rarely smiled any more and she spent longer hours alone in her study working on correspondence or other such matters of state. Ehlan also refused to read any correspondence from Tunon, leaving it all for Baran. He was to brief her on it after reading. Baran guessed something had happened between Ehlan and Taura but she refused to say. All correspondence came from Darilas and she mentioned nothing personal about Taura.
Ehlan continued with her practice sessions but clearly her heart was not in it. She was doing it just to keep her skills sharp. Her audiences were shorter and she frequently lost her temper over frivolous matters. Baran watched her with a heavy heart.
Ehlan was reading a treaty agreement in her chambers late one evening. Summer was slowly grinding to a halt and the crisp autumn air was being felt more and more. She was marking portions of the treaty with her quill when a knock on her door caught her attention. The guard at the door announced a messenger. This in itself was unusual as most messengers were sent to either her chancellor or to Baran before coming to her. His message must be very important.
"Your Majesty," the messenger bowed deeply. His clothes were travel stained and dusty, he face was lean and lined with weariness. "I bear grave news," Ehlan's heart skipped a beat and despite her best intentions her first thought was of Taura, followed by thoughts of her cousin Joli.
"Yes," she encouraged him, her heart thudding in her chest.
"King Aquis, of Lyssia has passed into the House of Bellus," he stated somberly, naming the ruling monarch of one of the lower kingdoms.
"How did this happen?"
"A fall from his horse, Your Majesty," the tired messenger said. "His burial is to be held on the next moon cycle," Ehlan frowned deep in thought. Aquis had been an excellent horseman. She glanced up and caught sight of the messenger swaying.
"Thank you," she said before looking at the guard still standing just inside the door. "Mora see to it that he is fed and given a place to sleep," Ehlan ordered softly. The guard saluted and the messenger bowed gratefully before following the guard. Ehlan sat back in her chair, her mind whirling with the implications of the news.
On the surface it was just the sad notice of a fellow ruler joining Bellus' house. Yet something about it bothered Ehlan. It could have been the fact that Aquis was an excellent horseman. Or it could be the fact that there was no love lost between her and Aquis' heir, Rivka. It was rumored that Rivka was a member of Haquet.
The Haquet was a secret society that had been named for an ancient society ruled entirely by men. Their beliefs ranged from women should be in the background at all times, holding no position, rank or title, having no authority other than as a wife and a mother. They also believed that the High Blood Throne did not belong in the hands of a woman. They wanted the Throne to be returned to the ruling House who held it last, a descendant of the ruling House of Lyssia, Aquis or namely his Heir. Aquis did not hold with their beliefs, but his son and Heir, it was rumored was a full member. This worried Ehlan, so much so that she sent a guard to bring Baran to her.
* * *
"You must not go."
"No, she must go," came another opinion.
Her advisors and members of the High Council surrounded Ehlan. For the most part nervous men who didn't want to offend anyone. Not for the first time, she wished her father were close. Her father had survived Queen Maen's attempt on his life and was commanding a regiment across the Hyxa Sea and it would be at least three months before he could arrive in Borcea.
"Baran, what do you think?" she asked her Bonded Companion, her head reeling. Ehlan had slept little after she had shared the news with him.
"If you do not go it will appear as a personal affront, it is common knowledge that you and Rivka do not get along. And without your Blessing Rivka can't ascend the throne," he answered. Ehlan nodded, thinking the same thing.
"But she has not Heir!" shrilled one of the Queen's advisors. What little hair he had left was in disarray, his robes were wrinkled and wine stained.
"There is not enough time to conceive one," Ehlan said dryly. The little man sat down. "Baran," she turned her eyes toward the commanding General of her armies. "Are the three te-sudariem still here?" Baran grinned.
"Yes Your Majesty. What does Your Majesty plan?" he asked slyly a small smile toying with his lips.
"It would not do for the reigning Queen to go anywhere unattended," she answered innocently.
Baran laughed. One Tunonien, without magic would equal five of Lyssia's soldiers. With magic they were practically unbeatable. Ehlan grinned back at him.
The time of departure was scheduled for the Harvest Festival that would be taking place at week end. The High General would need the time to ready the guard and the te-sudar. He did not intend to send the Queen to Lyssia without adequate protection. Baran wished he could send the entire Tunonien Nation with her, only then would he feel she would be adequately protected. Ever since the attempt on Taura's life he had been obsessed with Ehlan's safety. Lyssia had been the last to join the Alliance and at various times had threatened to break away. The threat of the combined strength of the other kingdoms always held them in check. Nevertheless, Baran had a bad feeling about this.
For the Queen the wait was not welcome. A hundred and one details seemed to need her immediate attention. Ehlan also found her gray mourning robes uncomfortable. A sense of foreboding seemed to hover around her. She found herself looking over her shoulder at odd times to see if evil was following her. Her nerves were not served by the fact that the first two moons rose red and stayed red, neither bleeding back to white. The large moon had yet to rise red, but the Priestess' all said it would be a matter of time. Tempers were short everywhere as all eyes turned to the heavens and everyone paid close attention to the weather.
Ehlan was also worried because she had not heard from Joli in quite sometime. She fretted then raved then tried to shrug it off. Ehlan also found herself thinking about Taura. She had pulled out quill and parchment many times, thinking to write to the Carussa, but each time her pride had stopped her. Taura had made it clear that she did not want Ehlan.
The Harvest Festival held no joy for Ehlan. She watched with hardly any emotion as her subjects praised her as they came to pay the yearly taxes or as they celebrated the Harvest. The festival held a forced air about it as if every one was determined to enjoy it. The prophecy hung heavily over all of the revelers. Ehlan barely noticed the parade of women and men the council flaunted at her. Finally with last minute instructions to the council and to her chancellor, Ehlan and Baran embarked on their journey.
Despite herself Ehlan found herself remembering the last two times she had set out on a journey. She hoped this one did not end with her heart broken at the end. As her horse moved ever farther away from Borcea Ehlan found herself fighting tears, the thoughts Taura still painful to her.
Taura was awake when her servant entered the room. She was standing at the window, her haunted eyes looking down at the slowly awakening mountain city. Every morning since Ehlan had left Taura would awake before the sun had risen and would watch each new day greet her subjects. Her gray eyes held a sadness that none could seem to touch. Taura had refused to discuss it with anyone. Her aunt and cousins had finally stopped asking. Her grandmother though held her while she cried on numerous occasions. As the seasons changed Taura's tears had lessened and now on the brink of autumn she felt as if she had no more tears to shed.
Her eyes shadowed and holding no warmth were blank as she allowed the servant to help her dress. She was just putting on the circlet of silver on her brow when the door opened again. Kerin came striding in. The Khair smiled at Taura and received a genuine smile in return.
After Ehlan had left Taura had refused to see anyone, especially Kerin. But as time passed Taura and Kerin had talked, Taura telling Kerin everything. The other woman had been hurt, but professed to Taura that she still cared for her and would like to continue their relationship. Taura feeling that it would be unfair to do so had at first resisted. But lately though they had been spending time together again, enjoying each other's company. They had yet to share the Blessing again as Taura was unsure if she could give her heart to Kerin and she had decided not to give her body again unless she could give her heart.
"It is time Carussa," Kerin said softly, her smile warm.
"Must I?" asked Taura, playing with Kerin.
"Yes, Carussa, it is the Festival of the Harvest and you must give your blessing," came the response.
"Oh well, if I must," she sighed before laughing.
"Did you sleep?" Kerin asked searching for signs of a sleepless night. If it was not dreams of Ehlan that kept her awake it was Taura's failure to perform war magic that kept her scouring the library for answers. Kerin also felt Taura was searching for something else but Taura refused to answer her questions. Taura turned away from Kerin's penetrating gaze.
"Mostly," she answered. "Will you join me for breakfast?" she asked suddenly wanting to turn the conversation away from her nocturnal habits.
"It would be my honor," Kerin answered bowing pressing a hand to her heart then to her head.
The two Tunonien women left Taura's chambers. They were sitting in the dining hall sharing their meal in silence when a young man entered. He was carrying a rolled parchment.
"Carussa! Carussa!" he shouted catching sight of her. "I have an urgent message from the Queen." Taura's face went pale and Kerin's eyes went hard as she saw the look of panic that flashed across Taura's face. The young man handed her the message and she read it carefully.
"Call the Duma immediately," the Carussa ordered the young man. "Kerin please find Carun Darilas for me," she said softly her eyes still on the paper. Kerin left quickly.
"King Aquis of Lyssia has passed into the House of Bellus," Taura intoned solemnly once the council and Darilas had been gathered.
"Goddess be with him," Varan said softly making the symbol of the Triad. All heads bowed as she spoke the prayer that would send the King's spirit on its journey.
"This does not bode well for the Queen," Darilas said after the prayer. Taura looked at her sharply.
"Why?" she asked with a frown.
"Because Aquis' heir is a member of Haquet and believes that the High Blood Throne should be ruled by a man. Haquet will stop at nothing to regain the Throne," Darilas explained.
"Fools," spat Bivin. "They have read the Prophesy, they know that now is not the time for a male to sit the High Blood Throne. This is not the time for petty squabbles," his face was a thundercloud. Each thought of the two small moons rising red.
"They are not above using this to their advantage," Timre pointed out.
"Do you think they will try to break away from the kingdoms?" asked Taura.
"If they do civil war will break out," Darilas answered grimly. "Ehlan would then be too busy trying to keep her throne and unable to make ready for Antranik."
"Sounds convenient," Taura commented dryly.
"Yes it does," agreed another council member.
"Will any of the other kingdoms follow Lyssia?"
"Zirio might," Muria ventured, naming a small but rich kingdom. The kingdom was surrounded on three sides by an ocean. They were the largest suppliers of the whale oil that the other kingdoms used in their lanterns.
"They might," agreed Darilas nodding, a small frown between her eyes as she thought through the problem. "Especially if Lyssia offers them an incentive, like waiving the import fees on their oil."
"Titone will stay neutral," Bivin stated, naming another kingdom. It was in the northern frozen steppes. They had an abundance of gold in their streams. Their citizens kept to themselves as much as possible.
"Senat will go to whichever side is winning," Varan supplied. Senat was a farming kingdom, almost in the middle of the other larger kingdoms.
"Some of the border kingdoms might support Rivka, especially if he starts offering them special concessions," Darilas mused.
"Any of the Lower Thrones may side with him if they feel their monarchy is threatened, which they may feel if Ehlan uses a heavy hand in her dealings with Rivka," Timre commented looking around the council table.
"We can not allow that to happen," Taura stated firmly. "Not now, there is not much time and we can't afford to waste any of it on a civil war. If we are divided amongst ourselves then the forces of the Dark God will win without a battle," Taura said her voice insistent. The others nodded their agreement. Even though some had not forgiven Ehlan for the attempt on Taura's life they agreed with their Carussa's assessment.
"What do you suggest Carussa?" Darilas asked. All eyes turned to look at the woman who sat at the head of the table.
"We need to show the others that those who oppose the High Blood Throne oppose Tunon. That might make them think twice before acting," it was silent as they thought about Taura's words. Darilas tried to hide her grin. Pride for Taura filled her heart.
"How do you propose that?" Timre asked slyly trying to hide a smile.
"Darilas, how many te-sudariem are here in Tunon?" asked Taura looking at her father's sister.
"At least five hundred."
"I believe it would be proper for the Carussa of the Tunonien to join the other monarchs in celebrating Aquis' passing and watching as his body is returned to the earth. The Carussa should also be on hand for the crowning of his heir. A joyous occasion."
"Yes it would be proper," Varan replied, a frown marring her normally serene features.
"Darilas, prepare an honor guard of ten te-sudar to accompany us to Lyssia."
"Us?" Darilas raised an eyebrow smirking.
"Of course, it is only proper that I be accompanied by the Carun of the Tunonien, the High Priestess of Valeus, as well as a few council members, Bivin, Timre, care to join us?" she asked with a slight smile.
It was silent as the implications of what she was saying sunk in. The Carussa was bringing the highest-ranking Tunonien to stand at Ehlan's side. It would be a subtle reminder of the link between the High Blood Throne and the nation of warrior wizards. Slowly they all broke out in grins and smiles. Taura was cleverly diverting a potential civil war. Someone chuckled, followed by another; soon the whole room was convulsed in laughter.
* * *
"When do you leave?" Kerin asked later as she and Taura walked along the banks of the creek.
"The day after next, after the feast of Valeus," was the answer. They stopped at Taura's tree, a brief flicker of pain shot through her as she remembered what had happened here between Ehlan and herself before an assisans knife had almost ended her life.
"I'll miss you Carussa," Kerin said softly.
"Will you miss me or the Carussa?" Taura asked curiously.
"Are they not one and the same," Kerin responded to the familiar question. The two women shared a warm smile.
"Taura, I want you to know, I still have feelings for you," Kerin said suddenly. Taura didn't say anything. "I just wanted you to know. And I am willing to wait for you."
"Kerin, you know I care deeply about you," Taura told her looking at the other woman. "I am not sure if I love you," Taura said sadly.
She knew that she could not prevent Kerin's feelings but it still upset her that she was unable to spare Kerin pain. Taura's heart would forever belong to Ehlan no matter how hard she fought it.
"That you care is enough for me. The rest will come," Kerin said her belief firm in her voice.
Taura smiled softly, her eyes searching Kerin's for the truth. She saw all of the emotion Kerin felt for her. The two stood very close and Taura could feel the heat simmer between them. It was nothing like the white hot inferno that threatened to erupt between Ehlan and herself but it was familiar and comfortable. Kerin seeing the quick blaze of desire brighten Taura's eyes moved closer, her eyes moving to Taura's lips. Kerin moved forward and the two came together in a soft kiss. The kiss soon deepened and before Taura realized they were on the ground, clothes being pushed aside as their fingers and mouth searched the familiar bodies.
The kisses became longer and deeper; their hands became more frenzied. Taura's cry of release soared into the sky above. Kerin smiled in triumph before once more dipping her lips into Taura's wetness. Taura pushed thoughts of Ehlan and love away and let her body find the physical release it craved.
The morning Taura departed Tunon was dreary. Low gray clouds hung heavy, swollen with rain. It was as if the Gods themselves were desolate at her departure. Taura was leaving Tunon with a heavy heart. She had grown to love the Endless Plain and its people. It had become home to her. Another part of her though was eager to be on the road again. A part of her had missed the adventure. Taura only had to push thoughts of Ehlan away two or three times.
There was a lot of last minute activity as they prepared to ride out. Before they left Varan prayed to the Goddess for their souls and for a safe journey. Before she mounted Taura pulled up tufts of the waist high grass. Braiding it she stuck it in her saddlebag, wanting to keep a part of Tunon with her. Darilas watched, touched by the gesture. The brief smile though changed as Kerin made her way toward Taura. The Carun had not been happy when Taura had informed her that Kerin would be accompanying them. Kayla though had talked her into not arguing with Taura about it. Kayla and Cayne would also be accompanying them. For that Darilas was thankful, as Taura was leaning ever more heavily on her mother's sister and her cousin for council, a choice that Darilas approved of completely.
Taura mounted her horse and there was a rustle of noise as the others followed suit. She rode at the head of the column. The road out of Tunon was lined on both sides with the te-sudariem that were being left behind. A call had gone out to all the clans and they would be arriving soon, waiting for the call to arms. The gathered clans watched somberly as their newly crowned Carussa made her way out of Tunon. As one they knelt, their heads touching the ground as she passed. Taura felt her heart constrict as she looked out over the endless Plains of Tunon, peopled with the boundless Tunonien. She had never felt as if she belonged more completely than she did at that moment. These people were a part of her, they were family and they were all willing to die at her command. As she watched the rolling hills and the flat plains teeming with wheat and oats, tears started to come to her eyes. Taura did not want to leave; it was almost a painful sensation, as if she was being separated from a body part.
Darilas rode slightly behind Taura. As always her eyes were on the younger woman. She nodded in satisfaction at the play of emotions that danced across Taura's face. The Carussa may have not been born in Tunon, but the Plains of Tunon had claimed her.
"Carussa, it is time," came a soft voice from the flap of the tent.
With a soft sigh Taura rolled over and reached for Kerin before she remembered the other woman had returned to her own tent much earlier. Taura let her mind stay on Kerin for a moment. She cared a lot about Kerin and she thought she could even come to love her. But if she was honest with herself she knew that Kerin was not the one she wanted. Taura wanted Ehlan. With a sigh she pushed thoughts of the Queen from her mind and got up. She quickly dressed and left the tent.
A hush fell over the Tunonien around the campfire when Taura exited her tent. As one they bowed deeply, rising they smiled a greeting at her, some were even laughing. Their joy at having their Carussa in their midst was infectious. Taura found herself smiling as she moved among them, speaking softly with each, patting a hand here, squeezing a shoulder there, they all followed her with adoration in their eyes. Someone handed her a wooden bowl and spoon as she sat down. Gratefully she ate the porridge and drank the cool goat's milk. All around her servants began to strike the tents. Taura had just finished when Darilas approached.
"We have time for a lesson before we leave," she said to Taura.
"What will it be this time?" Taura asked with a grimace.
"Magic," was the usual answer.
Taura groaned, set her bowl down and stood up. Lately she had been getting severe headaches and had been sick to her stomach whenever she worked war magic. Darilas felt that was a good sign. Taura wasn't sure how her getting sick was a good sign but she put her faith in Darilas.
"Do we have to?" she asked almost plaintively.
"Carussa…" Darilas began.
"I know, I know," Taura sighed, she motioned for Darilas to lead the way. Darilas led her to small clearing in the woods. This had been a morning ritual while in Tunon and Darilas saw no reason to stop now. She kept pressing Taura, as it was very important that their Carussa be able to master their most fundamental of all magic.
An hour later, sweat pouring into her eyes, teeth clenched, Taura faced her teacher.
"Now?" she asked. In her outstretched hand she held a glowing ball of energy.
She had been sending it from one hand to another, learning to control it. Taura waited for Darilas to answer. Taura could feel the pressure at the base of her skull, her arm tingled, she clenched her teeth harder and her jaw ached. Just as she felt she could not hold it any longer, a scream building up, Darilas spoke.
"Now," she said softly.
Almost with a sigh Taura threw the ball of energy at an over hanging branch. It neatly cut the wood and came careening back into Taura's outstretched hand. Just as quickly she threw it in another direction. Three more times she sent it sailing, when it came back the last time Taura extinguished it. She fell to her knees breathing heavily. She struggled to keep her breakfast down. Darilas dropped down next to her, bending her head to be close to Taura's.
"Breathe deeply Taura, slowly," she spoke to Taura in smooth tones. Darilas rubbed Taura's shoulder her face still close as Taura gasped for air. Finally Taura's breathing slowed, and her color returned to normal, sweat still poured from her.
"Goddess preserve me," she managed. Darilas chuckled softly.
"Can you stand?" she asked. Taura nodded and slowly rose. She felt as if every muscle was stretched tight. "You are much improved Taura, at least you didn't lose your meal," Darilas laughed and clasped her shoulder.
"Thanks," Taura said wryly. She wiped the sweat from her brow and took a deep breath. "You know it felt a little better," Taura looked at her aunt who stood close staring proudly at her.
"Good." The two walked back to the camp sight in silence. Once there they were quickly on their way.
Darilas rode to the left of Taura and Kayla to the right. The two of them instructed her in the protocol of the courts and who was to be there. When they weren't discussing protocol they were discussing war magic, each trying to help Taura.
"Why did we focus on war magic at the Zariet?" Taura asked. The teachings had mainly focused on war magic and learning to control your talent. "I mean we were taught shields and strikes and all types of defensive magic," Darilas was silent as she formed her answer.
"Carussa we live in troubled times. We need to teach you things that will be of the most benefit to you, magic that will help with your task. The other magic will come."
"But I healed Joli and Ehlan."
"All magic comes from within Taura," Kayla said. "Even the most inexperienced of us can do something without knowing how. If the need is great your blood takes over. But doing things like that is dangerous. If you can not control your magic you are a danger to yourself and those around you."
"But is all magic only good for war?"
"Ah, no Taura, there is the magic of the Goddess in all things. The magic of the young child, the sunrise, the harvest, the seasons, the soft glow of the moons in the night. The magic of our fields growing, the magic of our very lives. Magic is not just for war, but for the creation of all things." Taura was silent as she let the words sink in.
"When this is over I want to learn to create, to heal."
"We all do, my Carussa," Darilas agreed softly.
* * *
"Do you not think what we do is magic my Carussa?" asked Kerin that evening as they lay in Taura's tent.
Her tongue teased Taura's ear. Taura groaned and moved beneath Kerin. Her heart had tried to stay strong but her body had been weak. When she was honest with herself she knew that the reason she wanted Kerin with her was to keep Ehlan at bay. When she had told Kerin the other woman had just shrugged and said it did not matter as long as she was with Taura. Taura pushed those guilty thoughts aside. Kerin chuckled softly and moved her hand deeper into Taura's wetness. The Khair closed her eyes as she moved slowly, enjoying the friction and Taura's gasps. Almost gently Kerin increased the speed and the pressure. Taura's breath was coming quicker as her release rushed toward her.
"You are fantastic," Taura breathed afterwards. Kerin chuckled again and stretched out next to Taura, putting her head on Taura's shoulder.
"So are you Taura," agreed Kerin. "I've never been with someone who makes me feel so alive," she said her voice drowsy.
Taura didn't say anything as she tried to keep the guilt at bay. She lay awake as Kerin fell asleep. Sometime later Taura slipped from the camp bed and made her way to the small table and chair in the corner of the tent. She lit the lantern and pulled one of the scrolls she had taken from her father's trunk to her. Taura had been working on translating the ancient scroll but so far had little luck.
Taura had heeded her father's words and brought the scrolls with her but as of yet had not asked anyone if they knew ancient Tunonien. Her father had warned her that someone would betray her and she had vowed not to give anyone the opportunity. Her brow furrowed Taura concentrated on the scrolls in front of her. So engrossed in what she was doing she didn't realize that Kerin had awoken nor that she had come up behind her.
"What's that?" Kerin asked frowning looking over Taura's shoulder. Taura jumped and attempted to cover up the scroll.
"Nothing," she said.
"Is that ancient Tunonien? When did your aunt Kayla teach you this?" Kerin asked looking at Taura. The other woman was amazed.
"She hasn't yet," Taura answered slightly flustered.
"Come back to bed Carussa, there is still time before I have to go to my own tent," Kerin smiled and stood up straight. The Tunonien woman let the blanket slide down to reveal to Taura's gaze her assets. Taura's resolve to not succumb vanished.
* * *
As they got closer to the Lyssian border Taura became more withdrawn. Not even her cousin Cayne's antics could rouse more than a small smile from her. Taura spent what available time she had with Kayla, their heads bent close as they spoke in soft tones. Darilas kept her silence, knowing that Taura's mind was on Ehlan. The Carun noticed that Taura slept alone more often now than before. She could almost feel sorry for Kerin, but the other woman walked around with a self-satisfied smile on her face. Darilas knew that Kerin believed that she and Taura would be joined soon. Darilas muttered to herself about the foolishness of young women.
"Carussa!" shouted a voice as a rider came thundering toward them. Taura reigned in her horse and looked around with a frown, searching for the source. The rider came to a halt in front of them. The young Tunonien dismounted, bowed before looking around wildly.
"Carussa, Carun Darilas, there is a force from Niam two days behind us," his news was greeted with startled exclamations. Taura and Darilas looked at each other. "They are riding hard and should arrive in Lyssia not long after us."
"What are they doing here?" Darilas asked aloud, her brow furrowed in thought.
"They are carrying the mourning banner," the rider imparted. Any party carrying the solid gray banner, trimmed in black, could not be molested. It was considered bad luck to interfere with someone mourning the loss of a loved one to the House of Bellus.
"What treason is this?" thundered Urra. "Rivka could not accept them. He knows that no followers of the Dark God are to enter the Borders." Taura realized that a small portion of Lyssia bordered Niam. She could not believe it of any of the kings to allow Niam access to their kingdoms.
"I must see this for myself," Darilas mumbled, she turned her horse around.
"I will come also," Taura said. Darilas looked at her, eyes narrowed, she was on the verge of discouraging Taura when she nodded. The two were followed by a small caven. Taura ordered the others to continue on with their journey.
"He was right," Taura said softly as they sat astride their horses, looking down into a small valley. They sat in the tree line and looked down at the compact campsite. The gray mourning banner was prominently displayed. "How many?"
"At least a regiment. Not overly large to arouse suspicions, but large enough to keep them safe," Darilas answered grimly. Her eyes searched the campsite.
"Rivka is playing with fire," Urra said softly.
"If he allows them entry," Taura supplied, still holding on the belief that no monarch of the six kingdoms would allow Niam access to its borders.
"He will let them in. They had permission to come across the border, this is not a mistake," Darilas' voice was grim. Without another word she turned her horse and headed back. In silence they made their way back to the main party.
"Carussa we must pick up our pace. I fear the Queen and the Alliance may be in danger. Rivka may be looking to align himself with Niam. If that happens the Alliance could fall apart. We must warn the Queen," Darilas said to Taura, her voice low. They had just arrived back with the main party.
"I agree Darilas," Taura answered. Darilas nodded and gave the order.
They rode from early morning to well after dark. They stopped only long enough to rest their horses. Taura was kept up late each night as they held council. Once the council ended she would spend a couple of hours pouring over the scrolls. Kayla had been teaching her to read ancient Tunonien by writing down common words on a piece of parchment. Taura would then match the words on the scroll. It was painstakingly slow but Taura refused to give up. Darilas and the others noticed that Taura's face was pale and there were dark circles under her eyes.
"You must get some sleep tonight," Kerin said softly to Taura after they had dismounted for the night. She looked at Taura concern evident in her eyes.
"I plan to," Taura told her, her voice husky and rough.
"Carussa, we will be ready shortly," Darilas said coming up to the two women.
"Not tonight Darilas," cut in Kerin. Taura looked up in surprise. Darilas went still. "The Carussa needs her sleep tonight. You can settle things tomorrow," Taura held her breath waiting for Darilas to explode or to put Kerin in her place. Darilas shifted her attention to Taura and saw as if for the first time how drained Taura looked.
"Very well, Carussa, sleep well," with that she turned on her heel and left.
"You should not have done that. There is much to discuss."
"They can do with out you tonight," Kerin stated firmly. "Come, you will be of no use to them if you drop dead from lack of sleep," she pulled Taura to her recently erected tent. Taura followed meekly behind, too tired to fight. Kerin ordered servants to prepare a bath. After the bath she fed Taura herself and led her to the camp bed. She held onto the exhausted woman as Taura fell into a deep dreamless sleep.
* * *
After hard travel they finally reached the capital city of Lyssia, named for the country. A delegation met Taura and the Tunonien at the city gates. The Heir to the throne sat astride a gray stallion surrounded by the Heirs to the other lower thrones. There was a noticeable absence of representatives of the High Blood Throne. Taura was not sure if this was on Ehlan's part or Rivka's. Her guess was Rivka.
"Greetings to the Tunonien from the Heir to the Crystal Throne of Lyssia," a man called out. He wore the badge of Councilor upon his gray robes.
"Greetings to the Heir from the Carussa of the Tunonien," announced Darilas.
An electrical shock passed between the gathered nobles. Darilas fought to keep a sneer from twisting her lips. After the coronation dispatches had been sent to all of the kingdoms advising them that the Carussa had returned to Tunon. Obliviously they had paid no attention to the announcement.
"It is true then," said a thin young man with lank dark hair. His dark eyes were bright. He was dressed in mourning gray, Taura guessed he was Rivka.
"Yes my Lord, our Carussa has returned, all of Tunon rejoices!" Taura watched as some of the young men looked at each other suddenly nervous.
"All of Lyssia rejoices as well. I bid you welcome to my fair city."
"Our thanks to Lyssia for her gracious embrace," Taura heard just the slightest bit of sarcasm in Darilas' voice.
The Tunonien were led into the city. A towering stone wall circled Lyssia's self-named capital city, the city districts were separated by smaller walls that circled the city. The warehouses or poor district was the first they passed through. Taura looked at dispirited faces on the street urchins. Darilas had ordered five te-sudariem to remain outside the city gates. When they reached the barracks near the palace she left three more te-sudariem, ordering the other two to accompany them to the Palace. The remaining te-sudariem were left at the Royal barracks. Taura and the others were surrounded by their personal caven as well. Close to fifty warrior wizards followed their Carussa into the Palace.
The Palace of Lyssia was an imposing gray fortress. A stone gate surrounded it and inside guards paced the battlements. Many wings had been added over the generations and stretched behind the central Palace. The delegation left them in the courtyard, to head back to the city gates to welcome another mourning party. Taura was shown to a suite of apartments in one of the wings set aside for visiting royalty.
"You must send a message to the Queen," Taura told Darilas after she had removed her dust covered cloak. "We must tell her what we have seen."
Before Darilas could reply someone knocked on the door. Kerin opened the door to reveal a liveried servant, carrying a silver tray. There was a folded piece of parchment on the tray. Darilas took it and read quickly.
"The High Blood Throne requests our presence in her receiving room once we have refreshed ourselves," Darilas informed Taura. The Carussa felt her heart start to pound, her palms grew sweaty, and she turned from Kerin's gaze.
"Send our acceptance," Taura said softly over her shoulder.
"Shall I attend you Carussa?" Kerin asked softly as Taura laced a fresh tunic.
"No Kerin, we may be some time," Taura told her. She picked up a brush and ran it through her still damp auburn tresses. Taura turned and saw the carefully blank look on Kerin's face.
"Kerin," Taura began with a warning note in her voice. "We have been over this."
"Yes, Carussa," Kerin said with no emotion as she bowed before leaving the room. Taura sighed and finished dressing by settling the Attul firmly over her brow.
* * *
The Queen barely heard the conversation around her. Baran and one of her advisors were speaking softly. Her eyes remained steady on the door. Ehlan felt almost nervous before angrily brushing aside the emotion. Her heart was thudding in her chest and her palms were hot and slicked with sweat. She tried to remind herself that Taura had not wanted her but her heart refused to listen. Ehlan was glad she was sitting; she did not think her legs could hold her.
After they had arrived in Lyssia some six days previously the other monarchs had been parading their eligible daughters in front of her, hoping she would choose one, thus giving that kingdom an advantage. None had attracted her notice though. Even those that she had shared the blessing with previously did not tempt her. Whenever she closed her eyes she saw a pair of somber gray eyes. When ever she thought of kissing another woman's lips she could feel Taura's beneath her own. No matter that Taura had rejected her, her heart wanted no other. Her lack of enthusiasm was noted and lamented by many a maiden, noble and servant alike.
Ehlan had been in an almost controlled state of panic from the moment word had reached her that Taura was on her way. As pleased as she was to have Taura near she was pragmatic in being pleased to hear of the ten te-sudariem that was accompanying her. Combined with her own Tunonien escort they had a formidable force on their hands, one that had not escaped the notice of the so far neutral kingdoms.
Ehlan looked up suddenly as a page opened the door. Her eyes could make out the deep auburn tresses of Taura's hair. Her breath caught in her throat. Ehlan was surprisingly unprepared to see Taura again. All the pain and rage she had felt at Taura's refusal of her love slammed into her, causing a brief wave of dizziness to engulf her. Ehlan took a deep breath and pushed those emotions away. She had offered Taura her heart and the Tunonien woman had rejected the offer. Ehlan knew that the two of them had to work together to keep peace and to keep the alliance together in this time of the Antranik. She could not allow the anger to cloud her dealings with the Carussa of the Tunonien. Ehlan would face the Carussa as the Queen she was.
"The Carussa of Tunon, the Carun Darilas and the High Priestess Varan," the page announced.
"We will receive them," Ehlan was surprised she was able to speak; she could feel Baran's eyes on her as Taura entered the room.
Taura felt that familiar tingle when her eyes met Ehlan's. A shiver of awareness went down her spine. In spite of herself a smile toyed with her lips. A surprised flicker went through Ehlan's eyes before she tentatively responded. Taura's smile grew, as did Ehlan's. The formal greetings were quickly dispensed with and the Tunonien sat down at the table already occupied by the Queen.
"You look well Taura," Baran commented. He was torn. He liked Taura and felt that Ehlan and Taura should be together.
"Thank you, Baran, you do to. Love certainly agrees with you," she teased gently. He blushed and lowered his head.
"Your Majesty, we bring news," Darilas began.
Ehlan shifted her attention from Taura's profile to Darilas. Her stomach was churning but some of the nervousness had subsided. The anger that had been so much a part of her had suddenly diminished when she saw Taura, it just didn't seem to matter any more. "On the way we encountered a delegation from Niam. They were headed toward Lyssia and they were bearing a mourning banner," she imparted. There was stunned silence in the room.
"He wouldn't dare!" thundered Baran.
"He would," Ehlan said softly reaching out to touch Baran's arm to calm him. Suddenly some of the veiled remarks that Rivka had been making made sense. "Is there any doubt Darilas?"
"None Your Majesty," Ehlan nodded a slight frown on her face.
"Varan," she turned to the Priestess. "Has the Goddess given you any guidance in this matter?"
"No, Your Majesty, she has been silent on this manner."
"Your Majesty," Taura said softly drawing Ehlan's attention to her. "We have arrived with ten full te-sudariem as well as personal caven's, which are at your disposal."
"Thank you Carussa," Ehlan's heart ached at the formality yet she recognized the need for it. Her own emotions were still raw. "We may need them. The alliance between the kingdoms is dangerously close to collapsing. I fear Rivka has been negotiating with the other Heirs for quite some time. I think more accidents may take place."
"This can not be. The Goddess has stated that we all must join against Niam or all is lost," Varan supplied sadly shaking her head.
"Men tend to look the other way when it pleases them," Baran said wryly.
"Rivka has been meeting with the Heirs almost everyday since we arrived. Once he is sure of their allegiance he may act," Ehlan told the others.
"You can't be serious?" Darilas was astonished at Rivka's actions.
"Deadly serious Darilas," Ehlan was grim. The mood became decidedly more glum. They discussed what options they had.
"Taura, stay a moment please," Ehlan asked as the others began filing out much later. Taura nodded at Darilas and turned from the door. The two were silent as they waited for the room to be emptied.
"You look tired, Your Majesty," commented Taura once they were alone.
"Taura, I am still Ehlan," the Queen said softly, her eyes unreadable as she studied the other woman. "Please sit," she gestured to two richly brocaded chairs placed near the window. Taura sat, followed by Ehlan. The two studied each other, their last meeting fresh in their minds. "Any lingering effects?" Ehlan asked looking at Taura's upper chest. Taura rubbed an absent hand over the scar.
"No, not at all." The two fell back into silence. All of their previous encounters weighed heavily on their minds. They were suddenly shy and unsure how to talk to each other. Yet they both knew that they had to get the awkwardness out of the way as they would have to interact with each other in the coming days.
"You look good," Ehlan finally said softly. Taura lowered her eyes, hoping that Ehlan could not see the emotions in them.
"So do you Ehlan," she managed around the sudden dry lump in her throat.
Ehlan smiled slightly and poured wine into two exquisitely cut crystal goblets from a matching decanter. Lyssia was the major supplier of fine crystal. Taura wordlessly drained her glass. Ehlan refilled it without comment. She was surprised to realize that Taura was nervous. Her heart began to hope despite her best efforts. The two sat in silence, sipping their wine as they cast looks at each other, hoping the other would not notice.
"Are you happy Taura?" Ehlan asked suddenly. Taura lowered her goblet and took a deep breath, knowing she would have to lie again and not knowing if she could.
"The Tunonien Kerin," the page announced before Taura could answer.
Kerin strode arrogantly into the room. Her hand was casually resting on the sword at her waist; her eyes though were sparkling dangerously. She looked between Taura and Ehlan. Kerin bowed just low enough to cause no offense. Ehlan's eyes glittered with bitter amusement.
"Your Majesty, Carussa, forgive my intrusion," Kerin began sounding anything but sorry. "His Royal Highness Rivka requests your presence Carussa, in the throne room."
"Did he say why?" Taura asked surprised, rising to her feet.
"No Carussa, the page arrived soon after the Carun and the Priestess returned," there was slight reproach in her voice. "Your caven is waiting outside. Darilas and Varan will meet you at the throne room." Kerin told her, her eyes still going back and forth between the two women searching each face.
"I'll come with you," Ehlan said rising as well. "Kerin, a pleasure to see you again," Ehlan said wryly.
"The honor is mine," Kerin replied tightly. With out waiting for a response she turned on her heel and left with the two reigning monarchs behind her. She didn't see the impish shrug Ehlan gave Taura, but she did hear Taura choke back a laugh. Kerin straightened her already stiff back and refused to look back. The awkwardness between the two monarchs dissipated and they each felt the easy companionship they had experienced on their travel to Borcea.
Waiting outside the throne room were Baran, Darilas and Varan. Two guards stood on either side of the closed double doors.
"You may announce the Carussa and the Queen," Darilas ordered one of the guards, her tone was impervious.
"Shouldn't it be the Queen and the Carussa?" Ehlan asked with a hint of a smile. Darilas sniffed disdainfully but her eyes twinkled mischievously. While they waited Taura studied Ehlan from the corner of her eye.
Her white blond hair was brushed straight back and fell, all one length to lightly touch her shoulders. Her blue tunic, trimmed in silver was belted with a belt around her slim waist. Her black fitted trousers ended at her high, polished boots. Ehlan radiated strength and power; she looked every inch the Queen. She was thinner than Taura remembered. It only enhanced the haughty planes of her face and her imposing height. Taura felt very small next to the six foot tall Queen, even though Taura was barely an inch shorter.
Taura felt eyes on her and turned to see Kerin staring at her, her blue gray eyes curiously empty. Taura met her gaze steadily and Kerin looked away. Taura returned her gaze straight ahead, out of the corner of her eye she saw Ehlan studying her.
After a moment the doors were opened and the page announced them. Taura could feel Ehlan stiffen as they entered the throne room. Her eyes were on the raised dais in the back of the room. The Queen's eyes bored into Rivka. He sat in an ornate chair on level with his father's throne, very close to the large replica of the High Blood Throne. By custom Rivka's chair should have been on the level below his father's throne, which was one level lower than the High Blood Throne. Until he was crowned Rivka should not have been on the same level. Ehlan was only slightly surprised he had not thrown convention to the wind and sat upon his father's throne.
Rivka's pale, pasty face betrayed no emotion as he watched them approach. His eyes though, glowed brightly with an inner fire. His advisors stood behind him and the Heir to the Water Throne of Zirio and two other young men that Ehlan did not recognize attended him.
"Your Highness, the Carussa," Darilas announced as the group stopped in front of the throne. Rivka took his time before replying.
"Your Majesty," he inclined his head slightly in Ehlan's direction.
"Rivka, I know you are in mourning, and as such, you may have forgotten that you stand in the presence of the High Queen till she gives you leave to sit," Baran said firmly in his military voice. Rivka's eyes flickered before he slowly stood and bowed with a flourish.
"Taura, I summoned you…"
"Carussa!" thundered Darilas, cutting Rivka off. Rivka swallowed losing some of his insolence one did not insult Tunon unless they were prepared to fight the fiercest warriors in the world.
"My pardon," he inclined his head. "Carussa, I," he paused. "I requested your presence for a serious matter," he paused and looked at the group below him.
"Recently, Lyssia has opened her trade routes to Niam," Rivka told them his eyes flickering over all of them gauging their reactions.
"You have committed treason Rivka," Baran said angrily.
"No Baran, I have not, the High Throne gives us leave to trade with whomever we will," he said smugly, confident in his argument. "A treaty signed by Queen Maen herself gave us this right. You may study the treaty if you would like," he smiled, his oily smile. Baran frowned and looked at Ehlan, she shook her head slightly telling him to let it go for now.
"As I was saying, we have recently opened our trade routes to Niam. Today a mourning delegation arrived from Niam. In light of the unpleasantness between Niam and Tunon," he ignored the snort of disbelief from the Priestess. "I ask you to respect my father and Lyssia and honor my guests. To further reduce the tension, I have invited the ambassador from Niam to join us, so that any unpleasantness can be aired before the banquet this evening," he turned and nodded to a guard. The guard opened the door.
"May I present Anel tu'Muira of Niam," Rivka was almost smirking as he studied Taura's face. The Carussa's features betrayed no emotion as her brother, smiling made his way toward them. He was clad all in black and was accompanied by his three childhood friends. Taura's eyes were hooded as she looked at Anel. The others around her were still.
"Taura, it is good to see you," Anel's expansive voice rolled over her. She looked at her brother, their features so similar, yet so different. He looked harder than he had previously. Anel stopped and spread his arms as if inviting Taura to step into his embrace.
"Anel," she greeted coldly. Anel's lips twisted into a cruel smile, his eyes flickering toward Ehlan.
"Your Highness," his inclined his head.
"It is Your Majesty now," she said softly. Anel inclined his head again.
"Taura you are looking well," her brother said shifting his attention back to Taura. Some emotion flickered in his dead gray eyes.
"Thank you," was the stiff reply. It was silent as Anel waited. Taura's gaze went to the three men standing behind Anel. They too were dressed in black their hands close to their swords. "Daut you are looking well, how is the wrist?" she asked a smile on her lips. Remembering the fight in the tavern, she had broken his wrist with her staff protecting Ehlan. The Queen gave her a sidelong look, remembering as well. Kerin stiffened and frowned catching the look. Her eyes hard Kerin turned to stare straight ahead. Ehlan looked at her grim profile, studying the woman who Taura loved.
"Well Rivka, you have arranged a pleasant surprise," Taura said when Daut did not answer.
"I am glad you are pleased," Rivka replied smugly with his oily smile. "I am sure you have some "catching" up to do," he said, "I have much to do before this evenings banquet," he rose. "If you will excuse me?" he asked Ehlan with the slightest of bows. Ehlan smiled and climbed the steps toward the High Throne.
"You have our leave," with a flourish Ehlan sat. Rivka's pale face flushed angrily. He bowed again and left with his entourage trailing.
"So Taura, I see the Tunonien have made you their Carussa," Anel observed his eyes flickering to the circlet on her brow. "I see they are still following their false prophecy," he drawled sardonically. "It is not too late to join with me Taura. I can show you what real power is," his eyes began to glow with an inner fire.
"Blasphemy," hissed Varan. Taura waved her off, without taking her eyes off her brother.
"Anel, it is not too late for you to join me."
"You heard the witch, blasphemy."
"How do you sleep? Do you see Mother's face?" asked Taura, her voice tight. Anel's eyes bored into hers. Darilas smiled and sent a thought to Kayla urging her to join them.
"Every day," he whispered. "I see the fear in her eyes and the pain she felt as I stuck the knife in. I feed on it."
"Bastard!" Ehlan roared rising up from the throne, she took a step toward Anel.
"No, Ehlan," Taura's soft stricken voice stopped her.
"Yes, Ehlan, make sure you listen like the puppy you are," Anel gloated. "Your soul would still give me great pleasure to take."
"Anel, how could you?" Taura whispered, unshed tears in her eyes. She did not notice the doors to the throne room opening again. "She was our mother."
"I could because she was our mother," Anel's eyes flickered to the new comer. Taura watched as the emotions passed through his face, fear, and guilt warred with evil, before his eyes grew cold and dead again. Taura knew then who had entered. Anel's face grew pale as he watched the woman walk toward his sister. "I, uh," he swallowed, fighting to regain his composure. "I notice you did not ask about our father," he commented, his eyes going back and forth between his mother's twin and his sister.
"He loved you," Taura said softly.
"He killed my true father."
"Your father was a monster! He beat your mother! He had no honor!" Kayla ground out angrily, her eyes flashing. Anel took a step back from her anger, still fighting hard to regain his composure.
"He did what was within his rights! All women must obey!" he looked over his shoulder at Ehlan. "Even Queens."
"You show respect for the High Blood Throne," Baran said his voice dangerously low, his hand moving to the sword belted at his waist.
"I swore no fealty to Ehlan. My master nor my country recognizes her crown," Anel met Baran stare for stare. Taking his eyes off the woman next to his sister allowed him to draw his confidence around him like a cloak.
"Well Taura, will you join me an learn the real depths of your power or will you play at being Carussa?"
"Anel, I will fight you if I have to," Anel laughed harshly, his eyes studiously avoiding the woman who so strongly resembled his mother.
"Well, their prophecy may come true after all. Brother against sister," he said softly. "Can you fight me Taura? Will you fight me?" his eyes burned into hers, his voice soft. The silence stretched as brother and sister stared at each other. Ehlan and Darilas shared a look. The answer to the question he asked had troubled them.
"It is of no matter. I will emerge triumphant," his eyes burned with an evil inner fire. "Taura girl, you would not believe the wondrous things I have seen. The power that will be mine. You can share these things with me," he moved closer to his sister, his eyes boring into her, almost begging her to understand.
"Remember when we were children Taura? The dreams of riches we had? All those dreams are in our grasp," he held out his hand, his eyes pleading with her, Taura's eyes welled with tears. He looked like the boy she had grown up with, not the mad man he had become. She found herself reaching out to him. Amid cries of protest Taura took his hand and the two embraced, holding each other tight. For just a brief moment he was her brother again. Taura could not believe how much she had missed him.
"Anel, I'm sorry, but I can't," she whispered into his ear.
He nodded and hugged her tighter for just a moment longer, he too longing for the simpleness of family. For just a moment longer he was still her brother and she was his sister. Sadly he released her. The siblings shared one last look before a veil fell over Anel's eyes and he became the man who had murdered his parents for their souls.
"Pity," he said dryly.
With that he turned and left the throne room, the other three following silently. Taura watched, tears streaming down her face. Both Ehlan and Kerin started toward her. Kerin reached her first, and Taura waved her away absently. She looked up and her eyes sought out Ehlan's. Ehlan's hand reached out of its own accord, responding to the pain reflected in Taura's eyes. Her heart ached to comfort Taura. She had once vowed to kill Anel for hurting Taura; she vowed once more to kill him. Taura took her hand and gave it a slight squeeze before turning and without a word she left the throne room, followed by her Tunonien. Ehlan watched her go, wanting more than anything to follow. Baran's eyes stayed on Ehlan, his heart aching for the simple longing he saw in her eyes.
There were bodies everywhere. The ground was soaked with blood. Pools lay undisturbed, the ground so soaked it could hold no more, forming under lifeless bodies. Taura's boots made no sound as she walked. Fields were covered with bodies as far as the eye could see. Nothing stirred. There was no wounded, they were all dead. Their souls taken. There was Darilas and Varan, Urra and Baclar, Kerin and Kayla, and Cayne. Familiar face after familiar face. Baran lay on his back, his eyes staring sightlessly toward the dark sky. Lying next to him, her hand outstretched as if to reach him, blond hair matted with blood, was Ehlan. Taura paused looking down. A huge gaping hole was in her chest. Hearing a soft laugh Taura looked up, Anel stood there, in his hand; he held a pulsating blob, blood dripping down his arm. He laughed again and raised Ehlan's still, impossibly beating heart to his mouth. His eyes bored into hers as he took a bite. The beating stopped.
"NO! Ehlan! NO!" cried Taura sitting upright. She was breathing heavily, covered in sweat. Her hand went to her own chest, her heart beating wildly. "A dream," she said softly to herself. "Just a dream." With a heavy sigh she laid back, willing her eyes to close and her heart to steady. It was much later before she finally fell back asleep.
* * *
"But Darilas," Taura began. The older woman shook her head stubbornly.
"No, buts, Carussa, you must continue to practice," Darilas insisted. "You will never be ready if you do not have your skills."
"Darilas I may never be ready."
"That is a risk we all must take," Darilas was resolute. Her hard stare pinned Taura. With a sigh Taura gave in.
An hour later a pale and sweating Taura collapsed in a chair in her chambers. She had been making steady, if slow progress on her war magic. Her headaches and upset stomach were diminishing each time. She poured herself a goblet of wine, as she sipped the wine her mind went to the banquet the previous evening.
While Taura did not have much experience with royal banquets even she could tell that something was off. It was not so much what was said as was not said. It was almost as if everyone was waiting for someone else to make the first move. Ehlan has whispered to her that it was like a game of borsuk, a game Taura had never played. Ehlan had played it and had given her a brief description of the game of strategy. After the banquet Ehlan had called a council for the Tunonien. They had been talking well into the night, searching for a resolution. It had been Taura's suggestion to speak with the monarchs themselves. Ehlan had agreed and it was decided after Aquis' funeral pyre they would speak with the monarchs. Ehlan had mentioned that since the arrival of the Carussa and her te-suariem, those previously neutral monarchs had been very friendly toward her. Draining her wineglass Taura rose and looked out of the window into the training yard below. Tired of being cooped up she went down to the yard.
Taura practiced her swordplay. The heavy wooden sword at first felt awkward. As she warmed up she could feel her muscles responding and moving fluidly. Urra, at times, was hard pressed to defend himself. As good as she was with the sword, she was even better with the staff. Her father who unbeknownst to her had been a kaden had been teaching her for years before his death. She felt herself grinning as she easily parried a thrust.
"How about a new partner?" Ehlan's smooth voice broke in after Taura had managed to unarm Urra. She had Baran had entered the practice yard unnoticed. They were both dressed in loose fitting, nondescript workout clothes. Neither looked any the worse for wear after the late evening.
"You think you could take me?" Taura challenged a grin on her face. Ehlan grinned back and winked.
"I know I could," she answered saucily.
"Well, let's see if you are as good as you think you are," Taura said moving back, gesturing for Ehlan to join her in the practice ring.
"I'm better," still grinning Ehlan picked up a practice sword and went in to meet Taura.
"So Heir Princess, you think you can defeat the Carussa?" Taura teased as the two circled each other. Her heart was soaring as she watched Ehlan stalk her. She had missed Ehlan, as much as it had pained her to send Ehlan away she knew it was for the best, but she still missed the other woman.
"It is Your Majesty to you and the High Blood Throne recognizes no petty minor kingdoms," Ehlan shot back raising an eyebrow haughtily. The two laughed with real joy. It made Ehlan's smile grow larger. It felt good to laugh and it felt better to laugh with Taura.
Bantering back and forth the two thrust and parried easily, matching strike for strike, thrust for thrust. Much to their surprise they found they were pretty evenly matched. Ehlan's height gave her a slight advantage, but Taura was quicker. A few times Ehlan found Taura's sword close to her before she managed to block the stroke. Through it all, they were grinning like small children. As they fought, a crowd gathered. Soldiers from the Queen's Guard, Tunonien warriors and even some of Lyssia's guards. Wagers were being tossed back and forth. The Tunonien banged their staffs on the ground in encouragement of their Carussa.
As they continued neither gained an advantage and neither would yield. Their banter fell off as each concentrated. The trainers stood to one side together and watched, commenting softly to each other. Ehlan was getting tired and her arm was heavy, she knew she was slowing down. She advanced with grim determination. She hated to lose and she had lost quite enough to Taura. The harder she fought though, the wider Taura's smile grew, almost as if she knew Ehlan was near defeat.
The pace grew frenzied, their swords became a blur, as they spun, thrust and countered. The air was filled with the heavy sounds of the swords cracking against one another. Suddenly both swords were on the ground, each having managed to disarm the other at the same time. The crowd burst out in cheers. Breathing heavily the two rulers looked at each other, smiled and bowed. They then turned to the crowd and mockingly bowed to them. The crowd hooted with laughter.
"You have improved," Ehlan commented as the crowd began to disperse. The two women could hear the remarks as the men dissected their match.
"So have you," the two women looked at each other their eyes locked, edging toward that precipice that each wanted to cross but were afraid to encounter alone.
"That was magnificent!" Baran cried reaching them. "I have never before seen such a purposeful display. Taura, you have to show me that spin move you did." Taura blinked before turning her attention to the tall dark haired man.
"I'm not sure my Tunonien trainers would like that," she chuckled. Baran grinned.
"Nothing ventured nothing gained," he countered grinning.
"So, how did things go after I left?" Taura asked, turning back to Ehlan. Around them practice sessions broke out.
"Much the same. Rivka went on and on about how much his people will benefit from trade with Niam and how they support the decision," Ehlan answered a slight derisive tone in her voice.
"I thought any moment he would get down and kiss Anel's boots," Baran supplied with a scornful chuckle.
"I wonder how the people really fee," Taura mused. Baran and Ehlan shared a look over her head.
"Why don't we go see? We're not dressed as royalty. We could pass as travelers," Baran suggested looking between the two women.
"Sure, why not. It will be good to get away for a bit," agreed Taura.
"What's the matter Carussa? The Attul weighing heavily on your brow?" teased Ehlan. Taura turned and gave a glance toward her silently waiting caven.
"Sometimes," she admitted with a sigh. Ehlan patted her shoulder sympathetically. Baran quickly retrieved their weapons. Taura watched as Ehlan belted her sword to her trim waist, her own sword was settled on her back.
"I am going back with the Queen and her Bonded, you may go ahead," Taura ordered her two caven.
"But, Carussa, it is our duty to stay with you," Muro, the taller of the two stated. Each thinking of the last time their Carussa had gone off with the Queen without a caven.
"I have enlisted the Queen and the Companion to serve as my caven for the day," Taura told him with a straight face. The two guards shared a look before sighing. They each bowed deeply before moving off. Muro gave Ehlan and Baran a penetrating look, warning them with a look to be vigilant with the Carussa.
"So, we are to be your caven?" Baran asked amused.
"Yes, I think you are worthy," Taura laughed.
"Come, Carussa lead the way," Ehlan bowed, mimicking the Tunonien, touching first her heart then her forehead. She was rewarded with a laugh.
It did not take them long to get to the marketplace. It was like every other marketplace. Merchant stalls, merchants selling their wares, fruits, meats, and dry goods. The three walked slowly through the marketplace, fingering items, making half-hearted offers for merchandise. They bought spicy meat on a stick and continued to walk. They asked innocent questions and gathered information. They finally settled on a tavern off the main square. They sat in the back of the common room and ordered a chilled jug of wine.
"This feels like old times," Taura commented softly as Ehlan poured wine into their goblets. Ehlan looked up and smiled slightly.
"It certainly does," she agreed. "Taura and I spent a lot of time in taverns," she explained to Baran.
"That explains why you drink so much."
"Rivka is telling us that trade with Niam is welcome," Ehlan said, ignoring Baran's grin, "It doesn't seem though that the merchants agree."
"I figured as much," Taura grimaced at the slightly tart taste of the wine. "For these prices we should have gotten Muricia red," she commented naming a region famous for its wines.
"Ever the frugal one," Ehlan muttered before she too grimaced at the taste.
"I didn't think Niam had anything worth trading for," Baran spoke up, his eyes on a group of men dicing in the corner.
"Nothing that we don't already produce in the Kingdoms," Ehlan told him.
The three discussed the various grumbling and rumors they had heard. They drank the wine and debated on what rumors to pass along to the other monarchs. Baran noticed as they sat, that Taura and Ehlan were sharing deep looks. At first they would watch when the other was not looking. That soon changed to them studying the face opposite almost as if trying to memorize the beloved features. Baran's heart ached for them. When they left the tavern he hung back a little to give them time to talk.
"You never answered me earlier," Ehlan commented as they slowly made their way back toward the Palace. "Are you happy?" Taura did not answer right away.
"As happy as I can be with all of this hanging over my head," she answered truthfully. They fell into silence again walking through the marketplace.
"Taura, I want you to know that my feelings have not changed," Ehlan said softly, not daring to look at Taura afraid of what she may see.
"Ehlan," Taura sighed, "I'm sorry."
"Don't be, I just wanted you to know."
"Ehlan, you know it would never work."
"It would if we worked at it," Ehlan said simply. She stopped in the entrance of a small alley. She noticed that Baran was pretending to study the contents of merchants cart. "If we wanted it we could do it."
"I can't let you give up the Throne and I can not turn my back on who I am."
"I would gladly renounce my Throne if it meant that I could be with
you," Ehlan said fiercely her eyes shining. "Taura, I love you.
I have never felt like this about anyone ever. You are the better part of me
and I am lost with out you."
"Ehlan we went over this before."
"Please Taura, don't give up until we have explored all options," Ehlan begged her eyes pleading with Taura. She could see in Taura's eyes that the other still loved her and that her resolve was weakening.
"But Ehlan, what about the High Blood Throne, what about Tunon? What about…"
"Taura, there is only us. Just you and I. Taura and Ehlan, just like it was in the beginning. The rest will work itself out," Ehlan pressed her advantage. She could tell that Taura wanted this she could feel it! Taura looked up at her and was on the verge of replying when Baran's shout caught their attention.
Taura did not see the men that attacked them. They came out of the alley that she and Ehlan were standing in front of. Baran's shout warned them in time to arm themselves. Taura met a downward stroke of the sword with her staff. She could tell that Ehlan was fending off her attacker. Her staff was a blur as she fought off the tall grimacing man. She felt Baran as he joined into the fray. She countered each attack easily. Only once did he get by her defense, but only enough to nick her cheek with the tip of his sword. Just as quickly as the attack happened it was over, with four men on the ground. The three left standing looked at each other, breathing heavily not so much from exertion but from adrenaline.
"Every time we get together someone tries to kill me," Taura quipped with a smile. Baran was searching the men.
"Nothing," he said grimly.
"This is all too familiar," Taura supplied her eyes on Baran.
"Yes it is," Ehlan agreed. "You're hurt," she said moving to Taura. She gently cupped Taura's chin and lifted her face. She tenderly wiped away a drop of blood. "Are you okay?" she asked her voice warm with concern.
"Yes," breathed Taura. She was unable to look away. There was a strange buzzing in her ears and the amulet around her neck started to grow warm and throb.
"What now?" Baran asked his voice sounding far away. The buzzing in Taura's ears grew louder so that it was almost a scream. Her muscles tensed, every sense waiting for a blow. She barely registered Ehlan's frown. With out thought she stepped back and her staff snapped up in front of Ehlan as if to ward off a blow.
A pulsating red light hit the staff, engulfing it in a bright light. Ehlan cried out and stepped back her eyes large. Baran seemed frozen in place. Taura, muttering to herself, forced her will and focused her magic. She pushed back fighting the pulsating energy. A white light began to glow from the center of the staff and it soon engulfed the red light, forcing it onto itself, making it smaller and smaller before it disappeared completely with a soundless pop. Taura fell to her knees retching.
"Taura! Are you all right? What was that thing?" Ehlan asked dropping down next to Taura. She wrapped an arm around Taura and helped her stand. Taura's face was ashen and she was breathing heavily, her eyes held a dazed look.
"I'm okay. It was a battle spell. If it had connected with you it would have entered a poison into your system, killing you instantly," she managed, leaning heavily on Ehlan. Ehlan's face went pale and she shared a look with Baran. The two looked around the crowded marketplace looking for anyone who may have sent the battle spell.
"By the Gods," Baran breathed, his face pale.
"You saved my life Carussa, I thank you," the Queen said softly. Taura sagged weakly against Ehlan, barely able to stand. "Come Baran, help me, we need to get her back." The man rushed to her other side, picked up the staff Taura had dropped and draped one of her arms over his shoulder.
"It's okay, I'm always like this after I use war magic. I haven't gotten used to it," Taura muttered, her eyes fluttering closed. With Ehlan and Baran supporting her they made their way hurriedly toward the Palace.
"Carussa!" came the agonized shout when they entered the Palace courtyard.
Taura had lapsed into unconsciousness, sagging between Ehlan and Baran. Ehlan could feel the heat coming from her. Sweat was pouring down her face. Ehlan could hear her mumbling. Hands from everywhere tried to pull Taura away. Anguished cries circled them.
"Get Darilas!" Ehlan shouted, surprising everyone into silence. "Make way! Get Darilas!" The two carried Taura to her chambers.
Darilas arrived just as they did. Her face went pale as she took in the scene before her. She pushed open the door, leading them to Taura's bedchamber. Once Baran and Ehlan had gently placed Taura on the bed she began checking Taura's pulse, peering into her eyes, holding the lid open, her frown deepening.
"What happened?" she demanded not looking away from Taura.
"Someone attacked us," Ehlan stated. She quickly told Darilas what had happened.
"Are you sure it was red?" Darilas asked turning to face Ehlan. "Quickly! Get the Priestess Varan!" she ordered a Tunonien at the door. "Find me a Healer, I may need some of her herbs," the Tunonien practically ran from the room.
"What is the matter? Is she going to be all right?" Ehlan asked, anxiety welling in her. "What's the matter?"
"That was a powerful battle spell, it is slipping into her and draining her life force," Ehlan was shocked.
All heads turned to the door as it opened. Kerin stepped in, her smug look fleeing at the sight of the pale form on the bed.
"Taura!" she gasped. She rushed to the bed, pushing past Ehlan and Baran. She fell to her knees beside the bed, raising a trembling hand to Taura's hair. "Oh Goddess," she breathed.
"What have you done?" Kerin whirled around angrily her eyes blazing. "What have you done?!" she shouted at Ehlan again. Her fists clenched and she was practically shaking with anger. Ehlan had never seen a Tunonien so close to losing control before.
"I did not do anything," Ehlan found herself answering.
"By the Goddess! Every time she sees you, you put her in danger!" Kerin spat. Ehlan pulled herself up, remembering she was the High Queen. "How dare you!"
"Cavena!" thundered Darilas. "Remember who you are."
"I remember," Kerin said her voice soft, her eyes still on Ehlan. "Hear me, if you come near her again, your crown will not protect you," her voice was deadly quiet.
"Cavena are you threatening me?" Ehlan asked, her voice just as soft, yet no less regal. Ehlan took a step closer to the angry Tunonien. "By my word, I could have you dead where you stand. I won't because you speak from fear for Taura, but I suggest to you that the next time you think before you speak."
"By my word," Kerin bit out. "I will have you dead where you stand if you come near her again," her voice was hard. The arrival of the High Priestess kept Ehlan from answering. Ehlan took a deep calming breath, remembering that Kerin was upset.
"Your Majesty, please accept my apology for Kerin-cavena, she is upset and hasty in speaking her mind," Darilas said, bowing, strangely humble, her eyes though were brimming with anger. Kerin shot her a hard look.
"I meant every word," she snapped back. Darilas barked at her in Tunonien and Kerin's mouth clicked shut.
"Again Your Majesty, we apologize."
"I understand Darilas, there is no honor lost here. Let us not concern ourselves with this any longer, Taura needs our help."
"What has happened?" Varan asked, looking between the tense group. Her heart had skipped a beat when she saw Taura lying pale and lifeless on the bed. Quickly Darilas explained. The healer entered just as she was finishing. Baran and Ehlan were pushed to the side. Kerin positioned herself between the bed and Ehlan her eyes never leaving Ehlan. The High Queen, for her part, refused to be intimidated, she simply ignored Kerin.
"We will have to send for a Circle," Darilas was saying to Varan. The High Priestess of Valeus nodded grimly. Darilas turned and spoke softly to the Tunonien standing in the doorway. Nodding he left. She set the healer looking through her bag. "You all must leave now," she turned to the Queen and her Bonded Companion. "Please Your Majesty, time is of an essence now."
"Is she going to all right?"
"It is too soon to tell. No one must know how ill she is. If they think she is weak they may move against you," Ehlan nodded in understanding.
"We will say that she ate something in the market place that did not agree with her," Baran offered. "Better a weak stomach than a weak nation." Kerin gave him a withering look, which he too ignored.
"Please go now Your Majesty," urged Darilas as the room began to fill. Ehlan hesitated a moment before nodding. She gave Kerin a level look before striding arrogantly out of the room.
"Go to your rooms. I will deal with you later," Darilas growled to Kerin. Kerin, seeing the thunderous look on Darilas' face did not argue. She also made her way from the room. Darilas turned and looked down at the prone figure on the bed.
"She must not die," Varan was saying softly to the gathered circle. The circle consisted of nine master wizards, nine being a number symbolic to the Gods. The circle would join hands and join their magic.
The nine wizards circled Taura's bed and Darilas moved to her position at the foot of the bed, she would be leading the circle. Taking a deep breath Darilas asked them to join hands. Her eyes never leaving the body, she began to funnel the other's magic into her, making one continuous flow. Once collected she directed it toward Taura. The Carussa's body tensed as the pure essence infused her, her back arching, her face contorting in pain. Darilas pushed harder, finding the resistance, the source of the taint that was spreading through Taura.
The others began to sag, Tunonien behind them grabbed hold of them, keeping them upright, helping them stand. Varan began a prayer, her voice rising and falling. A blue pulsating light began to surround Taura. The Carussa's body jerked back and forth, the evil fighting. Darilas pulled even more from the eight others, she was afraid if she pulled more they would lose their own life source. Grimly she realized that nine lives were a small price to pay for this one.
The blue glow grew brighter. Sweat was streaming down Darilas' face and her breath was coming in short gasps. She could feel her legs trembling with strain and knew she would be unable to stand much more. Gritting her teeth she pushed harder. The glow surrounding Taura became blinding in its white-hot intensity, hiding Taura from view. Suddenly it imploded in a blinding burst of light, all sound stopped. Taura lay on her bed, breathing regularly, some of the paleness had receded. A few of the others fell to their knees. Some were still being supported. Darilas gingerly made her way to Taura. Her brother's child lay as if sleeping.
"Well?" asked Varan, watching in anxiety. Darilas checked Taura's heartbeat it was slow but strong. Her eyes were no longer clouded.
"It worked, she needs rest now," Darilas answered relief flooding her voice. She turned to the healer and told her what herbs she would need.
"So do you," Varan commented. "Someone else can sit with her until you regain your strength," Darilas hesitated, even though she knew the Priestess was right. She sighed heavily.
"Very well. I will be in my chambers. Send someone to inform the Queen," she ordered a cavena who stood near by.
"And Kerin?" asked Varan, her voice slightly amused.
"Say nothing to her."
Ehlan paced back and forth in her chambers. Baran sat in a chair watching her.
"How dare she speak to me in such a manner!" she fumed. Her anger and frustration finding a vent in Kerin. "Who does she think she is?"
"She thinks she's the woman in love with the woman who loves you," Baran commented softly. This stopped Ehlan in her tracks. She looked at him, her eyes filled with pain.
"What do you mean?"
"By the Goddess," he exploded standing, "It is very obvious that you two still love each other."
"I have been afraid to hope that she feels the same," Ehlan said softly, her voice rough with emotion. She turned her back to Baran and strode to the table where a decanter of wine sat. She poured a measure and drank it slowly. Baran just shook his head and went to the large window, looking down at the courtyard below. He could make out soldiers moving around in the courtyard. Frowning he watched as the Palace Guards were doubled. He had a bad feeling.
"I think Rivka is responsible for the attack," he said softly his eyes still on the courtyard.
"I think he planned the attack. With their long awaited Carussa dead, the Tunonien would be in disarray, leaving us practically defenseless. An 'accident' could conveniently happen to you and the other kings."
"Sending the kingdoms into civil unrest, leaving us vulnerable to Niam," Ehlan finished. She and Baran looked at each, concern in both their eyes. She moved to the window and looked out at the soldiers gathered. "We need to get a message to the garrisons," a knock made them both turn.
"Trevr-caven to see you Your Majesty," the guard said. He stepped aside to admit a red haired Tunonien.
"Your Majesty, the Carun, has asked me to deliver the news that the danger to the Carussa has passed and she is sleeping peacefully," he gave his news in typical Tunonien fashion, devoid of emotion.
"Thank you Trevr. Is the Carun available?"
"No Your Majesty, the Circle has drained her and she is resting."
"Who is in command?" Baran asked.
"At this moment? I guess I am," the Tunonien said. "Urra was also involved in the circle."
Baran quickly explained the situation to the Tunonien. Trevr's eyes widened slightly.
"I will take care of it immediately," he said, bowing he left.
"Would he play his hand so soon?" Ehlan asked.
"I think so, he is not very patient."
"Does he have that much support from the other nations?"
"I don't believe so. Intelligence from the Lefor suggests that the other kings still support the Alliance and the High Blood Throne. A few of the Heirs share Rivka's views, mostly because of the greed factor. Ehlan nodded, pulling nervously on her lower lip. Another knock on the door drew their attention. The guard announced Revon, Rivka's brother. Ehlan looked at Baran in surprise.
"Your Majesty," he bowed deeply. "We are all in grave danger," he said solemnly.
* * *
Taura sat glumly on the boulder. The Endless Plain stretched before her. She recognized the rock where she had seen the Goddess on her quest. She did not know how long she had sat there but she felt as if she had been there for some time.
"Why so sad my child?" asked the Goddess from behind her. Taura stood and turned around.
"It is harder than I thought Goddess," Taura answered.
"Harder than you thought to see Ehlan?"
"Yes," sighed Taura. "I love her very much. Why did you give me this love only to have me deny it?"
"We have never asked you to deny it my child," the Goddess frowned, suddenly her face brightened. "You misunderstood my brother, child, he only said you could not accept that offer, not all offers from the Queen."
"But we both have countries to rule, tasks to complete, there are many obstacles," protested Taura, shaking her head.
"You will find a way. The Blessed Tribe ruled themselves for sometime before you were found. The do not require constant rule," the Goddess told her, an amused smile on her lips. "Distance is but a small thing to overcome. Do you love her my child?"
"With all my heart," was the sincere answer. The Goddess chuckled softly.
"Then you will find away. Do not deny yourself any longer my child," with that and a final chuckle the Goddess disappeared. Taura smiled, her heart soaring. With a wide grin she set off, walking through the Plain toward where the other half of her heart waited.
* * *
"What do you mean?" Ehlan asked Revon. She stood facing the tall thin dark haired man. Where his brother looked pale and sickly, Revon looked healthy and full of vitality.
"My brother plots to overthrow the High Blood Throne."
"You do not share his views?" questioned Baran his eyes searching.
"No, Bonded Companion, I share my father's view. The High Blood Throne and the Queen who sits it is necessary. I have no desire for Rivka or any man to sit the Throne."
"You do you father proud," Ehlan said softly. "What are his plans?"
"He has spread the news that the Carussa is dead. He has said an illness has spread through the royal wings, giving him the excuse to seal them off. He then plans to send soldiers into each wing and kill the kings," he told them. Ehlan and Baran were stunned. "All the exits have been blocked, the Palace is sealed. All the kings are in their chambers with their Heirs."
"Which are with Rivka?" Baran asked.
"I am not sure, he has never said in my presence."
"We have to get out of here," Ehlan said firmly. "We have to get them all out of here at once. Revon, there must be a way." Revon thought for a moment.
"The passages," he finally said. "The secret passageways. There is a passageway that opens up out side the Palace gates."
"Good, Baran you and Revon gather some soldiers, bring back the Kings and the Heirs and bring them here. Once we are all gathered we will leave."
"What will you be doing?" Baran asked.
"I am going to see Taura," she answered daring him to say anything. He nodded and with a gesture left the Queen's chambers.
* * *
"You have disgraced yourself, your te-sudar, your Nation and your Carussa." Darilas said in an icy fury. Kerin stood before her defiantly, her chin raised.
"She…" she began.
"No! Regardless of your personal feelings you are first a Tunonien! She is the High Queen. How dare you?" her voice was coldly deadly. "It is not for you to decide who the Carussa sees."
"She is not just the Carussa!" Kerin broke in. "She is a woman. A woman in love! With me! With me!" Kerin's clenched fist pounded her chest emphasizing her point tears sprang to her eyes.
"Kerin-cavena, you have been stripped of your sword and your staff, you now serve as thian, pack your things you will be returning to our homeland," Darilas' voice was hard, her eyes the color of steel. "You will have no further contact with the Carussa. Once you arrive you will return to your te-sudar and you are banished from Tunon." Kerin gasped at the pronouncement. Never before had someone been banished from the mountain city of Tunon.
"I am not your equal thian," Darilas' icy voice was harsh. Kerin blushed and lowered her head.
"My apologizes Darilas-Carun. I meant no offense," Kerin whispered, her mind whirling, trying to find away to change Darilas' mind. "But, if I may,"
"I have considered all thian, my decision is final, this is as it must be. For the shame you have brought on yourself and the shame you have brought to us you will wear the black robes of thian for a period of three years," she clapped her hands and two other thian came in to the room carrying the long hooded black robes of the unhonored servant. Kerin fought the tears that threatened to spill. She raised her head, squared her shoulders and stared at Darilas as the servants draped the robes over her. Once she was robed Darilas nodded once and turned to the door. She stopped just before leaving.
"She is sleeping soundly Kerin," Darilas said softly without turning around. With out looking back she left.
* * *
Kayla looked up in surprise when the door to Taura's bedchamber opened. Her eyes widened even more as Anel walked into the room. His eyes were on the prone figure on the bed. Taura had yet to awake, her breathing was slow and even. Without a word to the Tunonien he strode to the bed and sat on the edge. Kayla was stunned to see the look of concern on his face. She watched as he brushed a lock of hair back.
"How is she?" he demanded not looking away from his sister.
"We believe she will recover. She has yet to awaken," Kayla answered. Anel didn't reply, his hand still running through Taura's hair.
"I had nothing to do with this," Anel said softly, so softly Kayla almost missed it. "Ah Taura, if only you would give up this foolishness and join me," he whispered almost sadly as he looked at his sister. Kayla could see the sadness in his eyes.
"She is our Carussa," Kayla stated simply.
"If it is power she wants I can give her that," he shot almost angrily, casting a glance over his shoulder. Kayla could see him visibly blanch as he looked at her. The knowledge that he felt guilt over killing his mother settled over her.
Anel looked back at his sister. His heart constricted at the sight of her lying there. When he had heard she had taken ill he could not believe it. His Tunonien blood sang with the resonance of magic, he knew that someone had used magic to harm her. He gazed at her almost as if trying to commit her features to memory. Despite everything he loved her. She had been the only person to ever love him unconditionally. It had pained him to hurt her by killing their parents, but it had to be done. Despite what he told her, he deliberately planned it for when she was on the mountain. He did not think then or now that he would have been able to kill her. He hoped in his heart that he would be able to convince her to join him, as he did not know if he could face her in battle. He reached down and brushed her hair back again, with tears stinging his eyes he bent down and placed a soft kiss on her cheek.
"I'm sorry Taura," he whispered, kissing her again. Her brother stood and looked down at her. As Kayla watched he straightened his robes and his face settled in the more familiar sardonic set, the hardness back in his eyes, the smirk firmly in place.
"What are you doing here?" demanded a harsh voice. Anel turned to face the angry High Queen.
"I wanted to see how my sister was," he answered.
"Brotherly love?" asked Ehlan sarcastically.
"Yes," was Anel's simple answer. He looked down at his sister again before turning his dead gaze to the tall Queen.
"The Palace has been sealed. Rivka has told all that there is a fever here that is highly contagious," he told her. Ehlan narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because Rivka intends to kill you," he shrugged. "I have tried to warn him that now is not the time but he refuses to listen," he turned to look once more at his sister. "He also thinks to kill Taura. I will not let that happen," he looked back at Ehlan, his gaze penetrating.
"Neither will I," she said softly. Anel smiled slightly. With a sardonic bow, just low enough not to insult he moved around her and left the room. Ehlan watched him go in silence.
"We have all been wondering whether Taura would be able to fight Anel," Kayla observed softly, she too still looking at the closed door. "But I wonder if Anel will be able to fight Taura." Ehlan turned and stared at Taura's aunt, the same thought in her mind. Taura moaned softly and Ehlan rushed to her side.
"Has she woken?"
"No," Kayla responded. Just as she replied Taura's eyes blinked open, they were soft and unfocussed.
"Ehlan?" she asked her voice low.
"I'm here Taura," Ehlan said bending down to be closer to the prone figure
"Are you all right?" Taura asked, her first thought on Ehlan. The Queen chuckled.
"I'm fine, how are you?"
"Tired, so very tired."
"Then sleep my love, sleep," Ehlan said softly, brushing Taura's hair back.
"My love," Taura whished her eyes fluttering closed. "I like that."
"Me too," Ehlan answered. Taura's eyes closed then opened quickly.
"Ehlan, I love you," Taura said for the first time, with that said she smiled and slipped back into a deep sleep. Ehlan smiled broadly.
"I love you too Taura."
"Do you believe him?" Darilas asked Kayla. The three women where in Ehlan's sitting room. Ehlan had just finished briefing the Carun on the situation. Baran, Rivka and Trevr were gathering a small force to go through the passages to bring the other monarchs and their Heirs to Ehlan.
"Yes I do. He did not attack Taura with magic," Kayla said firmly.
"But if he did not then who?" Ehlan asked. No one had an answer.
"Rivka is playing his hand too soon and Anel seems to be withdrawing his support," Kayla observed. "Anel did not seem to happy about the circumstances."
"I agree," Ehlan said. She turned and went to the window. Down below it was quiet as the courtyard was empty except for Lyssia's soldiers. "Is Taura well enough to travel?" she turned back to the two women.
"Not yet," sighed Darilas, her face was still pale. Ehlan felt a brief twinge about disturbing her rest but with Taura incapacitated the Carun was necessary. "The te-sudariem in the Palace garrison are at ready and a runner has been sent to the te-sudariem outside the city gates. All is ready."
"Good. Once Baran returns then we will start moving out."
"What about Rivka?"
"He is being very closely guarded. We tried to get someone to him. Our position is too perilous now. Once the kings and Taura are safe then we concentrate on him."
The three women paced the room nervously as they waited for word from Baran. When the door burst open they stopped. The angry kings trooped in their voices buzzing angrily.
"What treason is this?" demanded King Fael of Zirio. His Heir followed him. The other monarchs filed in after them.
"Revon," Ehlan said to the young man ignoring King Fael, the kings busy white eyebrows were raising and falling. "Can you get the Tunonien in the garrison in side?"
"Yes Your Majesty," he answered with a bow. He looked to Trevr and the two left. Ehlan then turned to the angry monarchs. She quickly briefed them as to the situation.
"Is he mad?" asked Zaren, the Heir to Zirio after Ehlan had told them of Rivka's plan.
"We think so. This may have been his plan when he allied with Niam. Unfortunately for him Niam was not ready to do this," Ehlan's voice was dry.
"Why is Niam not ready for this?" asked King Iamel of Irrian his son Ivak handed him a goblet of wine. Iamel was slightly stooped shouldered and not very tall, the Tunonien women toward over him. "Your intelligence has stated that they are almost ready to attack."
"I don't know. It seems as if they too are waiting for something. We don't know what their Prophesy says," Baran spoke up. "Or it could be that Anel does not wish for Rivka to harm his sister. Or Niam is not as ready as we think."
"We believe that Rivka was to have been a diversion, to delay us but Rivka played his hand too soon," Ehlan told the gathered monarchs.
"What is your plan?" King Vicoll of Titone questioned.
"Once Revon and Trevr return with the te-sudariem from the garrison we will outnumber the Palace guards," Ehlan grinned with no humor. "My father taught me to never leave an enemy at my back. We will remove Rivka, crown Revon in his place." A few of the Heirs looked at each other, deciding that now was not the time to place their support with Rivka. Ehlan and Baran noticed sharing a look.
* * *
Ehlan was surprised at how easily it was to capture Rivka. After seeing him though she understood. He was quite insane as he sat on the High Throne in the throne room. He shouted orders to imaginary people and carried on a conversation with a chancellor that was not there. The Palace guards, seeing the swarming Tunonien quickly lowered their weapons and surrendered. Anel and the contingent from Niam were conspicuously absent. Ehlan had been told that they had escaped the Palace before Ehlan and her Tunonien had entered the Throne room. Ehlan sent a te-sudar after them but doubted that they would be able to apprehend them.
Ehlan had Rivka forcibly removed from her throne. She sat and watched steely eyed as Revon was crowned king. Rivka screaming was sent to a tower cell where Revon ordered him held under guard until such time he could be executed for High Treason.
* * *
"She is still sleeping but they anticipate her waking at anytime," the black robed figure told the auburn haired man standing in the shadows. Rivka's attempt to take the High Blood Throne had failed and Tunonien swarmed the Palace grounds. "Rivka is to be executed in the morning."
"I see," he man said his gray eyes thoughtful. He turned his sharp gaze on her. "You willing give yourself to this task?" he asked.
"Yes, as long as you remember your promise I will deliver my end," the black robed figure stated firmly. "The Queen dies and I am given my reward," the voice was hard.
"Yes my fierce Tunonien," the man said with a cruel twist to his lips. "The Queen shall die and you will get your reward." The black robed figure nodded, looked around to make sure no one was watching before slinking away. Anel watched her go. "Yes Kerin you shall have your reward, but it will not be my sister," he whispered as he watched the angry Tunonien slip back into the Palace.
* * *
Ehlan stood alone on the parapet. Her cloak was wrapped tight around her. A cold brisk wind was swirling around her tugging on her hair. Her green eyes were watching as a small group of Tunonien made their way out of the Palace grounds. In the center was a black robed woman. Ehlan knew it was Kerin as Darilas had told her of Kerin's fate. Ehlan felt pity for her, she knew what it was like to love someone so much you would dare anything.
It had been two days since Rivka's failed attempt had taken place. Taura was getting stronger. The small twin moons continued to raise red and the days were growing ever shorter and colder. Ehlan felt an air of expectation hanging over the Palace. She was edgy almost as if she expected something to happen, she just was unsure as to what. She didn't turn when she heard boots crunching toward her.
"Well Baran, is everything prepared?" she asked with out turning around. They were planning on leaving in the morning.
"I don't know," said a soft voice. Ehlan turned around quickly, startled. Standing before her was Taura. She still looked a little pale but her eyes were no longer dazed. The auburn haired woman looked back at her with a smile.
"Taura," Ehlan breathed. "Should you be up?" she asked concerned, taking a step toward her.
"Yes," chuckled Taura. "I'm fine, no after effects." The two women fell silent. "You haven't been to see me?" Taura finally asked her eyes searching Ehlan's. The Queen turned back to the wall and looked out.
"I wanted to give you time to rest."
"I think you were hiding from me."
"That too," admitted Ehlan. She felt Taura move closer to her, could almost feel the heat from her body.
"Why?" Taura asked. Ehlan took a deep breath before answering.
"I hated seeing you lying there. I felt so helpless."
"It wasn't your fault."
"I know. I still hated it."
"I thought it was because I told you I loved you," Taura said softly after a moment. Ehlan turned from the wall and looked at her.
"I didn't think you meant it."
"Oh, Ehlan," Taura sighed stepping closer to the blond woman. "I
meant it. I should have said it long ago. All the time I have wasted. Ehlan
I love you. I have always loved you."
Ehlan looked at her almost as if she were afraid that Taura was going to change her mind. Her face showed the battle of emotions. She stepped close to Taura, so close they were almost touching and looked down at the slightly shorter woman.
"Do you mean it?" she asked, clearly afraid to believe. Tears came to Taura's eyes.
"Yes," Taura said simply.
Ehlan looked down her, her face expressionless as she studied Taura's face, searching for the truth in her eyes. Slowly a smile slid over her lips, growing to a grin. Ehlan pulled Taura to her and took her mouth in a deep possessive kiss. Taura moaned and wrapped her arms around Ehlan's neck and kissed her back with abandon. Ehlan pulled back and threw her head back giving a crow of triumphant laughter.
"By the Goddess she loves me!" she shouted. "She loves me!" Both women laughed and Taura pulled her down for another kiss. Time lost meaning as their mouths explored each other, their souls touching.
"Say you will Join with me," Taura whispered once the kiss had been broken. Ehlan's forehead was resting on Taura's. "Please say you will Join with me. I could not bear it if we did not spend our lives together."
"What about the Tunonien? What about the High Blood Throne?" Ehlan asked a slight smile on her face, using Taura's previous argument. Taura chuckled softly, the sound sending Ehlan's pulse racing.
"There is only us, Ehlan, just us. Everything else can be sorted out," Taura answered moving her head so she could look into the green eyes that had haunted her dreams. Ehlan smiled slowly.
"You are right Taura. Everything else can be sorted out," she whispered before lowing her head again to taste Taura's lips. It was much later before they broke apart.
* * *
"Any word yet?" Ehlan asked Darilas that evening. The last banquet was about to proceed. Revon had been crowned, his father's spirit had been sent on his journey and Rivka's execution was scheduled.
"None Your Majesty," Darilas answered. She frowned. There had been no word from the te-sudar that had followed Anel, intent on capturing him. Before Ehlan could answer a movement at the door caught her eyes. Darilas watched as a transformation occurred. Gone was the regal controlled look on Ehlan's face to be replaced by smile that burned with deep love, her eyes sparkled. She practically glowed. Darilas looked at the door and saw a matching look on Taura's face. She smiled as Taura made her way to them, her eyes on no one else.
"It is about time," Darilas muttered softly. Ehlan chuckled softly.
"The Goddess weaves our lives on Her schedule," quipped Ehlan as Taura joined them. She took Taura's hand and placed a small kiss on the palm. Taura caught her breath.
"Should we excuse you from the banquet this evening?" asked an amused voice. Taura laughed at the impish grin on her cousin's face.
"Not yet Cayne," she answered with a matching grin. Ehlan smiled and raised an eyebrow. "But soon," her eyes burned with a heated promise as she stared into Ehlan's eyes.
"All right you two," growled Cayne goodnaturedly. The small group laughed, the Queen with abandon.
The banquet was well underway when Ehlan's attention was pulled from a contemplation of Taura's face. Her mind had been wandering to visions of Taura beneath her, moving against her. The voice of the guard in her ear pulled her mind from those pleasant visions. She frowned as she looked down at the folded piece of parchment he placed into her hand. The others at the table barely noticed, but Taura did, she felt Ehlan's change of mood and looked up to watch as the Queen read the parchment. Her face drained of color as she read and she reached out a hand to steady herself on the table. Ehlan looked up, a wild look in her eyes before she pushed her fleeting panic aside.
"I have news," Ehlan said raising her voice. Conversations stopped as all eyes turned toward her. She looked down at the parchment again before handing it to Baran at her left. "The Prophesy has come to pass. Make ready, we leave in the morning. Niam has begun to move." Her pronouncement was met with shocked silence. With a grim set to her mouth she stood. As one the monarchs rose and bowed deeply not rising until the High Queen and her Bonded Companion let the banquet hall.
"Send word to your forces," Ehlan was saying to the gathered monarchs sometime later. Couriers had been coming and going in a hurry since Ehlan had received news of Niam's march. She was fingering a small piece of black cloth absently. "Have them come up through Senat, that will save some time. We shall meet at this staging point," she pointed to a spot on the map. "Titone forces can come down through here," she finger traveled along the map, showing them the best routes. Vicoll nodded. "Irrian can take this route," she pointed out another route. "The High Blood Throne's forces are already massing here," she pointed to another location. "And will meet us."
"How long?" asked Sener, the King of Senat.
"Two months, three if we are lucky," was the grim answer. Grumbling met her answer.
"It is too soon," Sener frowned. Ehlan shot her head up. Sener's son had been one of Rivka's constant companions.
"Do you read the dispatches I have been sending you for the last year?" she asked angrily. The smaller man blanched. "Did you think I was joking?" she demanded.
"No, uh, no of course not," the thin man said hurriedly. Ehlan looked at him disgust in her eyes before turning back to the map spread out before her.
"The Tunonien will come from here," she showed them.
"So the sight of the last battle will be here," said Iamel softly, his finger on a spot on the map. All looked down, it was near the Tunonien Tinesse border, the same place where the last Carussa had lost his life. They all looked up at Taura who met their gazes emotionlessly.
"Will the Tunonien be there in time?" asked Samil, Sener's son. Darilas looked at him coldly.
"The Tunonien are ready and will be there. It is our task to fight this battle," Darilas told him.
"It is the task of us all," Ehlan said, turning her attention back to the map. The Queen and other rulers poured over the map well into the night. Setting up supply routes and planning battle strategy. Taura, leaving the planning to Darilas moved to the window and looked out. Even at the late hour the courtyard was bustling with servants and guards preparing for the march.
She felt strangely calm as she looked out over the night. She was as ready as she could be. Taura was under no illusions; she knew that this was the time. Everything in her life had led up to this. Her eyes stared into the darkness her thoughts far away. At first she did not notice what she was seeing. Suddenly the vision before her cleared and she gasped. The large moon had risen red. Small snow flurries drifted down, dusting the courtyard with fine flakes. The time of the Antranik was upon them.
There was a thin layer of snow on the ground the next morning. Taura stood wrapped in her cloak. One of her caven was holding her horse. She was calm as she stood there, her eyes not seeing the last minute rush as people hurried about to finish before they left. She felt Ehlan before she heard her as the Queen came up behind her, wrapping her arms around the Tunonien.
"How are you?" Ehlan asked softly.
"Fine, did you get any sleep?"
"They doubt me," Taura said softly, her eyes moving to a knot of people opposite of them. King Sener and King Fael among them.
Ehlan could not dispute her statement. They had looked at Taura, somewhat in awe and somewhat in suspicion. She was an unknown. Most were wary of all Tunonien since they were a race of fierce warriors that had magic. Magic was a mystery to them and those that wielded it were kept at arms length. Who knew what kind of mind and heart it took to wield magic? And then there was the matter of the priests of Niam. They had magic and had used it for all sorts of evil on the people of the 6 kingdoms. Niam had been a hated enemy for centuries, how do you differentiate between one race of magic wielders from another? It was a tough decision for most. People reacted differently, for most they just held themselves apart from the Tunonien. For Taura who grew up not knowing she was a Tunonien, it was hard for her to understand people's reaction to her. Their reactions ranged from disdain to fear. Taura was still trying to get used to.
"Your Majesty it is time," came a soft voice behind them, breaking their connection.
They reluctantly pulled apart. They shared a deep look before going to their waiting horses. As Taura settled into the saddle she looked around the courtyard. Tunonien, Tinessen, Lyssian, all were gathered. Some would not make it back to their homes but they grimly set about the task before them, knowing that death lay before them. Taura straightened her shoulders, putting her nerves away to look at sometime later; she had her own task to do.
Ehlan set a grueling pace. Behind her stretched her small army. The personal guards each had brought as well as the Lyssian army. They pushed well into the night, stopping once it was too dark to safely travel. In the morning as soon as dawn broke they were on their way again. When they stopped for the evening Ehlan held council with the other rulers. They would spend hours pouring over the maps, going over strategy until exhaustion drove them to their own tents. Ehlan would then work deep into the night, drafting dispatches before collapsing in the camp bed.
The dispatches were increasingly grave. Niam's forces had moved up and were pouring over the Border. For every mile of the Border that was defended there was another two that was not. Ehlan and Taura had sent couriers to advise their Border guards to fall back. The size of the army heading toward them would destroy them. The Battle was assured.
"Ehlan, we have to slow down," Baran said to her late one afternoon, weeks after they had left Lyssia. She turned cold green eyes to him. "Listen we are all exhausted. We will be of no use if we are dead on our feet."
"I know," she sighed. She looked around before reining in her horse. "Send the word," she told her Bonded.
"I want to release Kerin from her punishment," Taura was saying to Darilas as they rode back a ways from the vanguard.
"Taura you do her no honor," Darilas replied her mouth a firm line.
"She spoke as a woman not a Tunonien."
"We are Tunonien first Taura," was the reply.
"Sometimes you can't always be. Maybe you have been Carun so long you have lost sight of what it is to be a woman in love," Taura said softly. Darilas' head snapped back as if she had been slapped, her eyes though cut to Kayla who rode near. Taura saw and hid a smile. "Kerin spoke as a woman in love, I find no fault in that."
"As you wish Carussa," Darilas said in a voice that left no doubt that she did not agree. They continued to ride in silence.
"Are you afraid Darilas?" Taura asked.
"Of battle? No."
"I am. Not for myself. But so many people will die."
"Many people will die if the Dark God wins," Darilas told her softly.
"My head knows that Darilas but my heart weeps for the dead already."
* * *
After an early meal the kings retired to their tents to get some needed rest. Taura was reading her fathers scroll when the tent flap opened. She looked up to see Ehlan enter. They had not spent much time together since leaving Lyssia. Taura put the scroll down and went to Ehlan pulling her into an embrace. The two just held each other silently, enjoying the closeness.
"You have not been sleeping," Taura whispered pulling away. She looked at Ehlan in concern.
"Too much to do," Ehlan replied also stepping back. "You haven't been sleeping either."
"I know, too much to do," Taura countered with a smile. "Come on, let's lie down and hold each other." She held out her hand to Ehlan. The Queen took it and allowed herself to be pulled toward the bed. With a sigh the two women settled themselves on the bed, their arms wrapped around each other. After a soft kiss the two women drifted off into sleep.
The next morning everyone woke up refreshed after the early stop. It was with fresh purpose that they headed out. The previous pace was not slackened. Ehlan started them early and stopped them late, but every few days she did stop early giving them all the opportunity to rest. As they traveled their numbers swelled as garrisons and mercenaries joined their ranks. It was a formidable force that arrived at the staging area.
Taura's mouth dropped open as they crested the last hill. Spread out before her was the combined might of the 6 kingdoms stretching as far as the eye could see. To the side stretching endlessly were the Tunonien warriors. They easily outnumbered the combined forces of the High Blood Throne. A fact that was not lost on the rulers of the lower thrones. She had never seen so many people in one place before. Never had the distance from her home been felt so keenly.
"By the Gods," she breathed. Her eyes took in the endless Tunonien. "There are so many."
"Behold the warriors of the Goddess," Darilas said. "They are your sword and your staff to wield Carussa," she told her.
"Pretty impressive huh?" Ehlan asked joining them. "I told you we would have the largest Joining party ever."
"Yes, but did you have to invite every one in the kingdoms?" teased Taura.
"Of course," she shrugged. Baran reined his horse in next to Ehlan.
"It is time Your Majesty," he said. With a nod Ehlan allowed him to lead them toward the command tent. The other rulers followed them. The soldiers bowed as they past silently. Dismounting in front of the command tent they entered, glad to be out of the cold wind. As if sensing that they were out of the elements snow began to fall in earnest.
"Joli," Ehlan breathed in surprise. Her tall dark haired cousin rose from the chair he had been sitting in. He was thinner but his face was just as hard and unyielding as it had always been. His pale eyes held a bleak look that he quickly pushed back. His dark hair was now liberally streaked with gray. Ehlan went to him and pulled him into a tight embrace. Taura watched as the two shared the embrace.
"Tes'muis Valeus, Carussa," he greeted Taura softly.
"Joli," she responded.
"Joli, do you have news?" Baran asked. Joli nodded and the gathered rulers and generals quickly sat down.
Joli spoke well into the night telling them of the things he had seen, the numbers, and the war machines. The gathered nobles listened grimly as he spoke. Niam had always been closed to them and as they learned what they were up against each felt a moment of apprehension. It was much later before they left the tent, leaving Ehlan alone with her cousin.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
Once they joined with the main body the army began its slow journey toward destiny. The weather grew steadily worse as cold winter winds howled down from the mountains. Night came early and only reluctantly released its hold each dawn. For those that doubted that Daimys had indeed broken free of his prison of light, only had to look at the steadily falling snow, look at the moons, red each night. Or they only had to look at the lone figure that stood each night staring off toward the west, the moonlight glinting off the silver circlet on her forehead.
Every day brought them closer and closer to Niam's army. Couriers were going back and forth barely stopping to change horses. Niam had now crossed the border and was marching steadily. More and more they encountered villagers that had their homes, fleeing before Niam could reach them. Dispatches brought reports of villages that were not so lucky. Ehlan's face grew grimmer with each new report. She was anxious to move faster, wanting to save as many of her subjects as she could. She would ride out every morning with the vanguard, hoping to speed them along by her force of will alone.
Taura found herself more and more in the company of her two aunts and her cousin. They worked with her every moment they could. Much to her relief she was getting better at wielding the war magic, her headaches rarely coming now. She had a new enemy to face as they marched closer and closer to Niam's army. Fear. It began to invade her senses as each day brought her closer. She began to doubt that she could fight a God. All the hopes of the nations hinged upon her. She began to doubt that she could do what was expected.
Taura was pacing in her tent. As large as it was it was not large enough to provide her with much satisfaction. She turned when she heard Ehlan enter. She barely looked at Ehlan as she continued her pacing. Three strides, turn, three strides, turn.
"Taura, you must rest," Ehlan said after a moment.
"Easier said than done."
"Sometime tomorrow we should meet Niam."
"Ehlan," Taura stopped her eyes wide. Ehlan moved to her and took Taura in her arms.
"No, don't think of it. Tonight is just us," she whispered looking down at the woman in her arms. "Tonight is just us," they kissed. As they came together there was desperation. Neither knew what the next days held. The only thing that mattered tonight was each other. The emotion they held in their hearts was all that mattered.
The kiss was never ending as they fought to stay connected, to stay real. Hands pushed aside tunics, loosened breeches, kicked off boots. Soon they were naked pressed against each other, the kiss still not ending. They moved to the bed, collapsing on the blankets, Ehlan lowering her weight onto Taura. They each gasped as their bodies touched fully. Ehlan looked down at the woman beneath her, love in her eyes.
"I love you Taura," she whispered. Taura smiled softly.
"I love you Ehlan."
Their lovemaking was at times slow and gentle, at others passionate and hard. Ehlan's lips traced a fiery trail from Taura's lips down her throat, stopping at her breasts taking first one aching peak then the other in her mouth. Her hands touched and caressed every inch of skin she could reach. Her mouth moved further down, tasting the skin she had dreamed out every night. She sighed as her lips touched Taura wetness. Groaning with pleasure she ran her tongue through it, causing Taura's hips to jerk. With a smile she lowered her mouth to the pulsating knot giving Taura all the pleasure she could. She felt Taura's hands in her hair as her tongue moved pushing her closer. Taura's cries grew louder and longer as the peak rushed toward her. Her hips moved in unison with Ehlan's strokes. Ehlan slipped two fingers into her core easily and Taura arched her back, throwing her head back, her eyes closed. Suddenly she fell over the brink crying out Ehlan's name as she fell.
Ehlan lay between Taura's legs, her head resting on Taura's stomach. Taura's hands gently stroked through her hair, letting the white blond strands fall through her fingers. They were silent as no words were necessary. Their hearts beat as one as they lay there. Without a word Taura moved, pinning Ehlan beneath her. She kept her eyes locked with Ehlan's as she moved her hand down Ehlan's body. Her hand slipped into Ehlan's wetness. She did not look away as her hand began to move, her fingers brushing against Ehlan's pleasure point. Ehlan's hips thrust upwards to meet Taura's strokes. Neither could look away as Taura brought Ehlan to the brink then slowed not allowing her the release she sought. Taura wanted to hold onto the feeling, the closeness that they were sharing. Ehlan's breath quickened as she once more reached the edge, this time Taura held her, looking down at her as she reached her peak. Their eyes were locked, their love almost palpable. Ehlan cried out Taura's name, falling over the brink. It was sometime later before they fell into a deep sleep, their sweat soaked bodies pressing close.
* * *
The next day they traveled until noon. The Dark Gods army was within striking distance. They were camped less than half a days ride. Ehlan called a halt to their march and the army set up camp. They would make their stand there. The battle would begin the next day. Ehlan stood in the command tent staring at a map. She and Baran had their heads bent close over the map, going over last minute strategies. Taura stood just inside the tent watching them. Ehlan had already gone when Taura had awoken that morning. She smiled as she remembered the night before.
"Your Majesty," she said softly. Ehlan looked up, her lips splitting into a smile as she saw Taura. "Come with me. You need your rest. There is nothing else we can do until the battle starts," she said with much more calm that she felt. Ehlan looked at the woman who held her heart.
"You're right Carussa," she answered stepping away from the table. They had done everything they could. They were as prepared as they could be.
The two women left the tent. Instead over going back to their tent in the middle of the Tunonien encampment the two rulers walked through the armies, around campfires where soldiers sat huddled. They offered a hand, a smile, a word or two. These men and women would be dying for them tomorrow, would die for their belief in what the two rulers stood for. The two women believed deep in their hearts that they owed the soldiers this time and they moved among the warriors from all different nations until well into the night.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
The attack came after midnight, when the night was at its darkest. Shouts of alarm pulled Taura and Ehlan from their embrace. Frowning the jumped up and hurriedly dressed. Arming themselves they exited the tent. Chaos greeted them as warriors ran back in forth. Shouts rang out and the sound of swords clashing filled the night. Men and women were running everywhere. In the distance a red pulsating light was warring with a blue light. Sounds of fighting surrounded them.
"What's going on?" Ehlan demanded a passing Tunonien wizard.
"The Niam are attacking Your Majesty!" she cried out. "Carussa!" she caught sight of Taura, her eyes searched for signs of the Carussa'scaven. "We must get you to safety!"
"There is no time for that," Taura snapped. "Find your Carus!" she ordered. The woman bowed quickly and moved off.
"I did not plan for this!" Ehlan shouted angry with herself. "I did not plan for this!" she looked around searching for Baran. She saw him running toward her, his sword drawn, Cayne following him.
"Ehlan! The Niam forces are attacking! They moved in under cover of darkness, our scouts were placed under a spell," he told her. "They almost caught us unawares."
"Darilas had ordered random searches by the Kaden, they felt the magic and reversed it," Cayne answered. "But it was too late, Niam was already upon us, we were able to sound the alarm." Ehlan nodded her mouth set in a grim line.
"Where is Darilas?" Taura asked.
"She and Urra are holding the north line, that is where the heaviest fighting is," Cayne answered.
"Where are the other kings?" demanded Ehlan.
"There are on the north side," Baran answered.
"Stay with Cayne, Taura," Ehlan said pulling her sword. "Please?" she asked seeing that Taura was about to protest.
"Be careful Ehlan, we still have a joining ceremony to be at," Taura said softly.
"I will see you soon," the two shared a deep look before Ehlan moved off at a run with Baran at her side. The Tunonien soon hid her from view. With steely resolve Taura armed herself and moved away from the tent, intent on restoring some order.
* * *
Taura stood back and took a deep drink from the water skin that had been handed to her. The battle had been raging for hours. Order had been achieved within the ranks of the Tunonien. The other armies had brought up reinforcements and the battle was fully engaged. Orders were being sent out from the command tent. Taura had not seen Ehlan in quite sometime but had heard she was fine, she had managed to help Darilas hold the north line allowing the kings of the lower kingdoms to gather themselves and join. The element of surprise the Niam army had been counting on had not paid off.
"How much longer do you think?" Taura asked her cousin wearily. They had been fighting for hours and Taura had never felt as tired as she did then. The battle raged around their small quiet area.
"I don't know, they just keep coming," Cayne answered taking the water skin. They watched as magic fought with magic above their heads. A large knot of war wizards stood apart, surrounded by their cavens, their attention focused on warding off the Dark God's priests. There was a small lull in the battle.
"Come on, we need to make sure the line is holding," Taura said to her cousin, firm resolve on her face. Cayne just nodded, having given up long ago from trying to get Taura to go to the relative safety of the command tent.
Taura stood silently looking down onto the battlefield. The night was still dark but fires that burned brightened it. The sounds of warriors fighting drifted to her, mixed with the groans of the injured and the dying. She could see Ehlan down on the field her sword a blur as she fought; Baran was at her side. There was an oddly surreal look to the battle as it raged around her. It felt to her oddly anticlimactic. She felt as if she were just waiting for something, only she did not know what it was. She felt detached from the battle, as if she were somehow separate from it. Taura did not seem surprised to see Kerin suddenly next to her. She watched emotionless as Kerin placed a well-aimed blow to Cayne's head with her staff. Before she could react, had she wanted to, Kerin muttered something, stunning Taura with magic.
Taura struggled against the fog that seemed to bind her. Her head ached and her mouth felt dry. She could not seem to get her eyes to open. She could tell her hands were bound and she was lying on the ground against a fallen tree trunk. Voices drifted around her, her heart lurched as she recognized them.
"I know you are awake Taura," her brother's voice sounded close to her ear. Painfully Taura opened her eyes. It was still dark; she had not been out long. "Hello sister," he greeted.
"Anel what are you doing?" she asked.
"My Master has told me you must be removed from the Tunonien. I have done his bidding and have brought you here," he waved around.
Taura sat up carefully and looked around. She could not believe her eyes. She was in the middle of the Niam camp. Surrounding her were the black clad warriors of the Dark God. In the center of the camp sat a large black tent, the blackness so complete it flowed into the night. Taura knew that it was for Daimys. She felt a shudder go through her.
"Anel," she began turning her eyes to her brother. His face was pale mask, gone was all semblance of her brother.
"Taura, you are to be given to him, go freely and wondrous things will be given to you. Fight him and suffer for all eternity," his gray eyes were flat as he imparted her fate to her. Kerin gasped and moved forward.
"No!" she shouted, placing herself between Anel and Taura. "You promised! You promised she would be mine," her face was contorted into an angry mask. Anel turned his flat gaze to her. "You promised if I helped you get through the Tunonien shields and brought Taura to you I would be given her."
"Fool," he spat. "Did you really believe the One True God would give you his Chosen Bride to share the Goddess' Perversion?"
"You promised!" Kerin's voice held desperation. Anel looked down at her his eyes colder than the winter winds whipping down from the mountain. His smile slid slow and oily, never once reaching his eyes. Despite herself, Taura shivered, this man before was not her brother.
"Yes I did promise, and you shall have your reward, Kerin, but not before My Lord claims his Bride," he told her. The two looked at each other, their wills clashing. Kerin's eyes widened slightly at something she saw in Anel's gray depths, or something she didn't see and dropped her eyes first. With a bow of her head she stepped back. She refused to look over at Taura. Anel moved his gaze to his captive.
"Come," he said softly. Daut and Creg each took one her bound arms and pulled her along after Anel. Kerin stood and watched, as Taura was lead toward the deep black tent.
* * *
"Where is she?" screamed Ehlan angrily, her eyes ice blue as they bored into Darilas and Cayne. They had found Taura's cousin groggily attempting to stand. Taura staff and sword were lying near her. Drag marks indicated that someone had been drug from the area. Sounds of fighting drifted to them, magic hung thick in the air like smoke from a fire, and even Ehlan could feel it. "Where is she?" Ehlan grabbed Cayne's tunic pulling her close.
"Your Majesty," Cayne began. "I don't know, I was hit from behind and when I came to she was gone."
"You are a Tunonien! How could someone sneak up behind you?" Ehlan growled. Baran moved up placing a hand on her forearm. She shook him off. "Where is she?" she demanded again.
"It was a Tunonien," Darilas said softly, her eyes looking at the ground taking in the marks. "These tracks were made by Tunonien boots. Only a Tunonien could have come up behind another Tunonien," she looked at Ehlan her eyes haunted. "Tunonien against Tunonien," she whispered stricken. Ehlan reeled back almost as if she had been struck, releasing Cayne so suddenly that the other woman staggered. Ehlan swallowed deeply and with a deep breath straightened her shoulders and raised her head regally, every inch a Queen.
"Darilas-Carun we command you to find and bring back Taura, Chosen of the High Blood Throne and Carussa to the Tunonien," Ehlan ordered, her voice deep, resonate, the voice of a Queen. Darilas bowed deeply, placing a hand to her heart than to her forehead in the ceremonial bow only given to the Carussa. "Darilas-Carun tell no one." Tears glittered in Ehlan's eyes as she watched Darilas and Cayne leave. Baran could feel the tension in her body as she watched.
"Come Companion, we have much to do," she said softly, moving away toward the command tent. She drew her royal bearing around her like a cloak, using it to insulate her aching heart.
"Yes Your Majesty," he answered, following her. She strode arrogantly into the command tent. The gathered monarchs looked up from the map and as one as if feeling the royal air around her bowed deeply. Her eyes still ice she moved into the tent and took command.
* * *
Taura tried to pull away from her brother's childhood friends as they moved closer to the black tent. It pulsed and moved with a life of it's own. Taura felt a chill pass through her, chilling her to the bone, and freezing her soul. She knew who or what was in the tent and Taura felt fear. A bone deep fear that threatened to turn her bowels to water. Anel stopped at the entrance and spoke softly to two black clad warriors with deep red sashes going from shoulder to opposite hip. Taura could not understand the language. The two warriors moved aside and one pulled open the tent flap. Anel muttered something softly and entered the deep blackness inside.
The first thing Taura noticed as she was pushed inside was the dark. A dark so complete it breathed. The darkness surrounded her, engulfed her, sliding in and around her. Her ears picked up a rustling sound as it moved around the tent. She turned in a circle, her arms suddenly unbound as the ropes fell away. The rustling turned into a whisper, too low for her to hear what was being said. She followed it around, still moving in a circle, faster and faster until a sudden pressure forced her to her knees. The whisper grew louder; still she could not understand what was being said, it buzzed in her ears, growing painful in its intensity. It grew harsher and reached a crescendo of sound. Taura heard a scream; not realizing it was her own. She raised her hands to her ears trying to block out the whisper, the whisper that had turned into voices, familiar voices.
As she screamed, voices pounded her ears, her senses. The voice of her mother, her father, of her brother as he tore their hearts from their chests. The voice of Ehlan, of Baran, Darilas, her aunt, uncle, and cousins, all pleading for their lives. Tears streamed down her face as she screamed as her mind was bombarded with visions of her mother crying, pleading, of her father struggling with Daut and Creg as they held him. Visions of Anel murdering first their mother than their father, laughing, exalting in his power. Taura continued to scream as her mind was assaulted, raped with visions of loved ones dying. Her screams were swallowed by the darkness, absorbing them before they barely left her throat. On and on she screamed, her throat raw, but still she screamed unable to do anything else.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
"Your Majesty, that it insane," a strident voice objected. Other voices were raised in agreement.
"Enough!" roared Ehlan, slamming a fist down on the table, knocking over a goblet of wine onto the floor. "Enough! We have no time to waste. They have the Carussa, we must get her back before the Tunonien realize this."
"Why?" asked the King of Senat. The small man sipped his wine. Ehlan shot the man a hard look.
"Because," she began speaking carefully, as if to a child. "If the Tunonien learn that their Carussa has been taken, the one they have waited centuries for, one of two things will happen. Either they will collapse into despair or will launch an attack without us. Without the Tunonien we are lost."
"Well if they attack without us so much the better don't you think?" Sener asked, his dislike of the Tunonien evident. Dislike dripped from Ehlan's eyes as she looked at him.
"If they attack in a disorganized fashion we could be caught in the middle. We have no defense against magic. We must have them with us."
"So you suggest a full frontal attack?" asked Fael, the King of Zirio. "Our numbers are similar, neither side has an advantage."
"We don't need an advantage."
"What do you mean?" Iamel, the King of Irrian asked.
"We need Niam occupied," Baran supplied.
"A diversion?" Zirio's monarch asked, his eyebrows drawn over his deep-set eyes. "This is a diversion?"
"Yes. We need time to get Taura back," Ehlan said softly. "We must get her back." Ehlan looked down at the map before her, trying to keep the tears from falling. She wasn't sure if she was speaking collectively or if she was speaking in the royal we. She just knew she had to get Taura back; everything depended on her being there.
* * *
Taura opened her eyes only to see darkness. She ached everywhere. She had no idea how long she had been unconscious. She shifted and moved to sit up. It was silent in the tent, the whispers and voices having been silenced. She moved her head, hoping for some type of relief in the blackness. Only darker degrees of black greeted her. Shakily she stood, stretching her arms out in front of her. Air greeted her.
She moved in a slow circle trying to get her bearings. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, her hands dropping. Suddenly she felt the amulet at her throat tingle. Taura touched the metal at her throat; her mind suddenly was filled with light, her eyes could see in the blackness, the light from her soul removing the blackness.
Taura looked around suddenly able to see in the tent. It was empty except for a small table near the back wall. On the table sat a large box. A black box made of onyx. The lid was closed. Something in the box called to her. She took a step toward the blacker than night box. The amulet at her throat practically vibrated and her Khodr birthmark burned at her breast. Two more steps brought her to stand in front of the box. With a shaking hand she reached out to touch the box. She knew what was in the box. She knew that the essence of the Dark God lived in that box.
It pulsated in the box, writhing, feeding on the war raging around the tent. Growing stronger with each death. Breaking free of the prison on light had taken its toll on the God. Taura realized the real meaning of the war standing there. It was not for dominance. It was to give strength back to the Soul Stealer. To give him the souls he needed.
She reached for the box. A sudden aching desire to see her enemy. To see the one who has caused her parents death. Anel may have wielded the knife but Daimys struck the blow. The box was cold to the touch. No warmth came from the box. Her hands ran over the box touching it lightly, feeling the evil rolling from it as it surrounded her. The smooth box seemed to pulsate with energy. Carefully she lifted the lid, and peered inside, the light from her soul pouring into the box.
A cry of anger and pain was wrenched from the box as the light hit it. The blackness inside coiled and writhed in pain as she gazed down at the pure essence of evil. Her eyes looked down at the vaporous form of the God. As she looked faces appeared in the dark. Faces contorted in pain their mouths soundlessly screaming their anguish visible. Face after face swam before her, as each strained to break free. New faces were added as another died and their soul was captured. Tears streamed down Taura's face as she watched in horror. She tried to break free of the grip the faces had on her, but could not.
"By the Goddess," she breathed. Images slammed into her, causing her soul to ache for trapped ones. The lid of the box slammed close and Taura broke away stepping back, trying to put distance between her and the box. The light from the amulet began to dim. A hand fell on her shoulder, whirling around a scream dying in her throat as she saw Kerin, just before the light went out.
"Come on," Kerin said softly, her voice close to Taura's ear. "I'll take you out of here," she took Taura's hand and pulled. Taura followed blindly.
They emerged from the rear of the tent. It was still dark. Taura thought it had to be close to dawn but the sky still looked as black as midnight. Even the stars had gone dim, the moons still shone a deep red all three still high in the night sky. Taura could hear the sounds of swords clashing and the screams of the dying. The battle still raged on.
"Kerin, why?" Taura asked as Kerin pulled her along behind the tents heading for the dense trees. Kerin did not answer until they were in the trees. She muttered a spell and Taura felt the shield fall around her.
"He promised me you," was her answer. "Come, we need to move, they will realize that you are gone and come looking for you." Kerin moved forward and Taura followed her.
The two were silent as they moved farther away from the main army. Kerin stopped her a few times and they hid from a patrol of Niam warriors. From behind them they heard the alarm raised as Anel discovered her missing. They quickened their pace through the trees, trying to put distance between them and Niam's forces. Kerin was pulling Taura along, forcing her to keep up.
"Where are you taking me?" demanded Taura.
"Back to Tunon," Kerin answered. Taura stopped suddenly and pulled her arm from Kerin's grip.
"I can not go back Kerin, I am needed here."
"The Kingdoms are doomed Taura!" Kerin answered. "The High
Blood Throne will be destroyed, Daimys will defeat the forces of the Goddess.
The only chance you have is to get you to Tunon to the sacred mountain."
"I cannot go back. What part of that do you not understand thias?" Taura spat angrily. Kerin jerked her head back as if Taura had slapped her. A thias was one with out honor, without clan and place. A thias was an exiled Tunonien, a traitor to the Blessed Tribe, to live forever as an outcast never to be allowed on Tunonien soil.
"Taura," Kerin's voice was stricken. Whatever affection Taura had felt for her had vanished as she had gazed into the box. "I did it for us. To save you from the Queen."
"You did it for yourself Kerin, at least face your reasons."
"No, Taura, for us, you were being clouded by your past with her. You belong with me, can't you see that?" she pleaded.
"I belong to the Tunonien, Kerin," she said softly, realizing it to be true. "Once my task is fulfilled then I will belong to myself,"
"Taura," Kerin reached for her.
"No, thias, I have nothing further to say." A sound caught her attention and she turned, her eyes widening as a group of Niam warriors broke into the small clearing. Anel followed surrounded by his three childhood friends.
"Thank you Kerin, for finding our runaway," Anel said with a small smirk. Taura could tell that he knew that Kerin had helped Taura escape.
"Silence, Taura," he cut in, his eyes still flat and dead. "I was to kill you in a ceremony in my Lord's tent, but time is running short. I must kill you now," he said this as if he was imparting the weather. He nodded to Creg. The tall man drew his sword and moved toward Taura.
Taura moved into a defensive stance, pulling in her magic ready to wield it. Creg moved closer and raised his sword, ready to give the blow. Taura watched as it arched downward toward her.
"NO!" cried Kerin, jumping in front of Taura, taking the blow that was meant for her.
* * *
Darilas moved grimly her eyes on the ground as she followed the tracks. Cayne and the rest of Taura's caven trailed behind her. Cayne's heart was heavy they moved along. She had let her cousin down let her race down. Darilas had not spoken a word since Ehlan had ordered them to find the Carussa. Cayne could see the anger and despair that was swirling in her blue gray eyes.
"Stop," Darilas said her voice low. Cayne felt the familiar pull as she felt magic being preformed not far from them. A shield was being erected. "It's Kerin," Darilas told them, recognizing the flow. She moved quickly in the direction of the magic. The rest following.
* * *
"Kerin!" Taura called out. Kerin crumbled to the ground, clutching her chest, blood oozing through her fingers. Her eyes searched for Taura. With a cry Taura fell to her knees cradling Kerin.
"Kill her," ordered Anel. Creg raised the sword again, prepared to strike down the kneeling woman. A solid thunk caught Taura's attention. Looking up she saw an arrow sprouted from his chest. With a war cry the small clearing was filled with Tunonien, weapons ready. They were quickly engaged with the black clad warriors. "Kill her!" shouted Anel again. Daut ran forwarded his sword raised. His downward stroke was met by Darilas' sword. Her eyes were cold and grim as she fought.
"Taura," whispered Kerin. Taura looked down at the woman propped up on her knees and wrapped her arms tighter around her. Blood was trickling from one corner of her mouth. Emotion flooded through her as she looked down at the woman who had meant so much to her. "Taura, I am sorry. All I ever wanted was to be with you," she whispered before a racking cough was torn from her. Tears sprang to Taura's eyes as she looked at the angry wet wound.
"I know Kerin, I know, now please don't talk, save your strength," Taura told her, unmindful of the battle that raged around her. She gently stroked Kerin's face and hair.
"I shall die thias," Kerin sighed her eyes sad, "I wonder where my soul will go."
"Hush, now Kerin-cavena," Taura whispered, pushing back her hair. "You will not die thias. You are a brave Tunonien and your soul will be welcome in the House of Bellus. All of Tunon will mourn the loss," she told her. The fight around her was slowing down as the Tunonien over powered the Niam warriors. Taura did not see Anel escape; her attention was focused on the woman in her arms.
"Thank you Carussa," Kerin managed another cough tearing from her. More blood came from her mouth. Tenderly Taura wiped it away. Kerin looked up at Taura her eyes glowing with the love she felt for the other woman.
"My name is Taura," she said softly lowering her head to place a gentle kiss on Kerin's lips. "Rest now."
"I love you Taura," Kerin said. With a last rasping breath her eyes emptied and her soul escaped.
"I love you Kerin," Taura said for the first time, tears slipping from her eyes, falling onto Kerin's lifeless form. She held the body close rocking slightly as she mourned for the friend and lover Kerin had been.
"Carussa, we must go," Darilas' voice cut into her grief.
"How many more will die?" she asked around her tears. "How many more senseless deaths must happen?" she looked up, her eyes angry. "When will it end?" she demanded.
"When you end it, Carussa," was Darilas' soft reply.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
Ehlan sat astride her horse at the head of the combined forces. The valley before her spread out into the night. Not long after the command to regroup had been issued word had trickled to them that the Niam army was retreating. Scouts had reported that they two were regrouping and massing at the other end of the valley. Ehlan looked up, the moons and not moved, time seemed to have been suspended. Never ending night had fallen.
She returned her grim attention back to the valley, her eyes searching for the enemy. She knew she would die this night, but she intended to take as many with her as she could. She had walked through the fallen, seen the dead and dying. Their forces had been cut by a third. The wounded lay in pain in the hospital tents, healers valiantly trying to save them. It was not enough she realized. They had not taken the prophecy seriously and now they were not ready. Niam would win and the sun would never shine. She would die and never she Taura's smile again. She caught the sob before it left her throat.
"Your Majesty, they are ready," Baran told her. She nodded and gripped the reins. Without a word she kicked the horse and moved off toward the waiting army.
Ehlan kept her eyes forward not taking her eyes off her destiny. She could make out the opposing army, also moving forward. The flat valley was perfect for the decisive battle that would ensue. When they were within sight of Niam Ehlan reined in her horse, her army spread out behind her. In the distance she could make out Anel astride a black horse.
"It is time Baran," she said softly, her hand going to the sword at her hip. The steely rasp rang in the air as she drew her sword. Baran turned to the young boy next to him, with a nod the boy raised the horn to his lips. The call to arms pealed forth and the sound of thousands of swords being drawn filled the air. Ehlan tried held her horse in as he pranced, anxious to go.
"Wait!" a voice called out. Ehlan's head snapped around as she searched for the voice. Hoof beats pounded toward her. A smile slowly split her lips as she saw Taura galloping toward her, followed by Darilas and her caven. "Wait!" Ehlan nodded to Baran who nodded at the boy. Another call pealed forth and drifted to the Niam. The gathered troops waited.
"Taura!" Ehlan called out in relief reaching for the woman who reigned in her horse next to Ehlan's. With a soft cry Taura hugged Ehlan tight. "I thought I had lost you," Ehlan whispered her voice husky with unshed tears.
"I told you, we have a joining ceremony to attend," Taura replied. Despite herself Ehlan chuckled.
"That we do Taura," she agreed. The two sat back and looked at each other, their eyes taking in the woman opposite. "Are you hurt?" demanded Ehlan seeing the blood on Taura's tunic.
"It's not mine," she answered her eyes clouding over in pain.
"Carussa, look," Darilas interrupted.
Ehlan and Taura looked to where she was pointing. A small delegation had broken away from the main army and was heading toward the center of the field stopping outside of arrow range of both armies. They were carrying the parlay flag. Baran called for Ehlan's flag. Ehlan, Taura, Baran, Darilas and two of Taura's caven rode out to meet them.
"Well sister, I see you managed to return to the Queen's side," Anel said his dead eyes moving through the group.
"Yes Anel, I have."
"You can stop this you know," Anel began conversationally shifting in his saddle. "Just join me and no harm will come to these people."
"Is that another lie your God has told you Anel?"
"My God tells no lies!" he shouted angrily. His eyes blazing.
"Anel, you can stop this," Taura said repeating his word. "Join me now and this can stop."
"You know I can't do that Taura," he said almost regretfully. For a brief instant Taura saw her brother looking out from the dead eyes. Just as quickly he was gone.
"The I have no choice Anel," Taura said sadly. She kicked her horse forward moving closer to her brother. Ehlan attempted to move with her but her horse did not move it was if an invisible barrier had been suddenly erected between her and Taura. Looking around she saw the confused looks of the others as they also tried to follow Taura.
"Taura!" Ehlan called out, trying once more to follow. Taura did not turn.
She stopped her horse just a few feet from her brother. She dropped her reins and spread her arms. Keeping her hands from her weapons, her eyes boring into her brother's. Anel spurred his horse on. The others behind him also tried to follow but were stopped by the same shield that Taura and erected. The two, brother and sister faced each other in the center of the field. The two armies held their collective breaths.
"Anel, we don't have to do this," she said softly, giving her brother another opportunity.
"Yes, Taura, we do," his reply was sad, his eyes showing his regret, before it was quickly shut away. The two looked at each other, as memories of a shared childhood passed between them. With a sigh and a nod, Taura broke the eye contact.
As one they drew their swords and they met with a clash of steel. Their horses circled each other as the two fought. Neither gaining an advantage, being very evenly matched. The gathered armies watched as brother and sister thrust and parried.
"Taura, join me, I don't want to kill you," Anel said through gritted teeth as he blocked a blow.
"That's funny, wasn't it you that ordered them to kill me?" she asked. They fell silent as they fought. A cry went out from Niam's warriors as Taura's sword slipped in and sliced into Anel's arm. He hissed in pain and thrust angrily, she easily blocked his blow. "Throw down your sword Anel."
"I can't!" he shouted in frustration. His eyes were wild as he rained blow after blow down on Taura. "Taura don't make me kill you," he pleaded his eyes filling with tears. "Please don't make me kill you."
Taura grimly pushed her love for her brother aside and met each blow steadily, searching for a crack. Suddenly, the two came together as their swords slid along their lengths bringing them close, their eyes locking. Taura stared into eyes the twin to hers and saw her brother's regret before the mask slid into place. Taura drew back her arm and knocked Anel from his horse. Caught unawares he fell hard dropping his sword. Taura dismounted and moved to stand over him; his foot lashed out and knocked her feet out from under her.
They stood and faced each other again. Taura fought off strike after strike as Anel, filled with a rage not his own pressed the only advantage he had, his strength. Cuts appeared on both of them as they fought. Taura could almost imagine them in their courtyard practicing with blunt swords, their father watching calling out tips. Her hands tingled and began to ache from the grip on the sword. Suddenly her sword was on the ground and she was on her back, Anel having disarmed her and knocked her flat. He stood over her, his chest heaving as he looked down.
"Taura, do you submit to my will?" he asked, the sword point down pointing at her chest.
"No, Anel, I do not," she answered softly. She watched as if in slow motion the sword raise up. She watched as Anel prepared to strike the blow.
"Child do you accept thy task?" asked the Goddess' voice.
"Yes, Goddess, I accept my task."
"Are you ready to die for your task?" she asked. The sword stayed where it was as Anel struggled to strike the blow.
"If I must Goddess," she answered. She watched as Anel struggled with himself. Anel stared down at her, his eyes begging with her. She did not look away. His arm started to lower, his eyes cleared and the madness melted away. Before her stood her brother. Taura carefully stood and faced the boy she had grown up with.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Anel's head snapped back and his body grew rigid, his hands curled up into claws and an agonized scream was torn from him. Veins popped out of his throat as his head was bent back almost to the breaking point. Another scream was ripped from him as his body shook and twisted. The wind started to whirl around their feet and their horses began to neigh and rear, frightened by the ill wind that surrounded them. Lightening crackled in the sky, pounding into the earth, ripping up great chunks of turf. The gathered armies fought with their horses to keep them from bolting. Taura could hear the rasping whisper from the tent, talking to Anel, getting louder almost drowning out his screams. Suddenly as if his bones had turned to water Anel fell to the ground. The wind stopped blowing. Taura looked down at the crumpled form. She took a step and stopped as her brother began to move. His head down he rose to his full height and tossed his head back. Taura gasped as she looked at him. Gone was any semblance of her brother. In his place, staring at her with eyes as black as an abyss stood Daimys, the Soul Stealer.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
"So you mean to defy me?" asked a deep voice it came from her brother's lips but it was not her brother. The dark voice slipped into her soul and chilled it. "You mean to fight me? And put me back into my prison?" He demanded.
"Yes, I do," Taura answered solemnly. She realized that her brother was dead, his soul forfeit. She was saddened but it did not sway her from her course. The God threw back Anel's head and laughed.
"You mean to fight me? An outlander Tunonien?"
"Yes, I do." The God looked at her, his black soulless eyes glittered.
"You mean to match your pitiful power to mine? I am a God!"
"And I am the Carussa and this is my task!" she shouted. She spread her arms wide and threw back her head and shouted to the heavens.
The words from the scroll poured from her lips, the ancient language almost music as it flooded from her. Clouds above started rolling and the sky brightened every so slightly. Daimys looked at her in surprise as the words spilled out.
"I am the sword and the staff and this is my task!" Taura shouted again, raising her arms to the sky. The red color began to bleed from the moons and the sky boiled. Daimys looked on in horror as the body around him tightened.
"I am the Khodr and this is my task!" she screamed her fists raised to the Heavens, the sky a rolling mass of clouds. Daimys howled in frustration as he realized too late that she had spoken an ancient spell that bound him to the body he inhabited. The powers of the body he was in were nowhere near his own. He picked up Anel's sword and faced the woman.
For the first time in his existence the God knew fear as he faced the woman. Energy crackled around her and her hair glowed in the light from the moons. He could feel the darkness slipping away as the moons grew brighter and the night began its natural course. Dawn would soon follow.
With a howl he rushed Taura. Their swords became a blur as they fought. Sparks flew from the steel as they clashed. Their feet were in constant movement as blow after blow was met and parried. Taura felt strangely calm as she fought the God. Anel's face was twisted in anger and rage as he rained blow after blow down on Taura.
In his rage the God became sloppy leaving openings for Taura to slip in. Taura did just that, sliding her sword in easily to the hilt. The black eyes widened in surprise and pain as the two stood close, practically breathing each other's air. Taura could feel his heart fluttering weakly against the sword blade.
Taura began to speak the words from the second scroll, the words coming easily. The body at the end of her sword twitched and the head fell back. As Taura spoke a bright white surrounded the body pulsating in its blinding intensity. Taura watched as the black eyes drained of color and with a cry the black, sibilant essence of the Dark God escaped from Anel's open mouth, only to be surrounded by the light.
The light tightened around the essence and formed a ball. It pulsed and writhed as the darkness inside tried to break free. Taura spoke the words from the scroll faster and the ball grew brighter and the darkness grew smaller all but disappearing in the light. With one final shout of rage the darkness disappeared completely.
All sound rushed in on Taura. She heard the sounds of thousands of horses and of shouts of triumph and dismay. Hoof beats filled the air and Taura barely noticed as her forces raced past her intent on fighting back the forces of Niam. Her eyes though were on Anel.
Anel raised his head as with a sigh he slid from her sword. Taura dropped down and cradled his head in her lap, much the same as she had done for Kerin earlier. Tears fell from her eyes as she looked down into Anel's familiar gray eyes. She brushed his hair back from his forehead.
"Taura girl," he whispered, his breathing ragged. He reached up with a bloodstained hand and gently touched her cheek. "Thank you," he managed.
"Anel, I'm sorry," she said tenderly.
"No, Taura, I'm sorry. I was always jealous of you," he said with a grimace of pain.
"Why Anel? Why were you jealous of me?" she was surprised.
"Because I saw the goodness in you and I knew that I didn't have it. But you loved me Taura. You were the only one who loved me."
"Mother and Poppa loved you as well Anel," she told him as she tenderly stroked his face. The sounds of the battle barely drifted to her. The Tunonien surrounding her, protecting her went unnoticed as her brother groaned.
"Not like you Taura. You loved me for me, not who you wanted me to be. I love you Taura. I couldn't kill you," tears came to his eyes. "Not even for Him, could I take your life." Taura lowered her head and placed a kiss on Anel's forehead before laying her head on his.
"Anel," she began, her throat constricting with pain.
"I'm sorry Taura," he said again, his voice getting weaker and his breather harsher. They fell silent as Taura held her brother as the life slowly spilled from him. Tears fell quietly from her eyes to mix with his own.
"Taura girl, I see them," Anel said his voice filled with wonder. Taura raised her head to look at him. His eyes were staring off, his gaze bright.
"Mother and Poppa. Theyre standing there, surrounded by light Taura, the most beautiful golden light I've ever seen," a slow smile spread over his face. "They want me to come with them Taura. They say they forgive me." Taura bit back a sob. "Taura should I go with them? Do you think they really have forgiven me?" he asked his eyes not leaving the sight only he could see.
"Yes, Anel, I'm sure they have forgiven you," she answered him gently.
"Do you forgive me Taura? I can't go until you forgive me," he turned to look at her, his eyes bright with unshed tears.
"Yes Anel I forgive you," she answered truthfully. All the anger and hurt were gone. He smiled such a sweet smile that it almost broke her heart. "Go now brother, go to Mother and Poppa. Rest now and we will meet again in Bellus' House," she whispered kissing his brow again. He sighed.
"Thank you Taura," Anel said softly. A few more breaths and his eyes emptied and closed. A small smile played over his lips. With a sob Taura lowered him to the ground and fell over him. As she cried the battle raged around them.
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
Ehlan found Taura much later still hunched over her brothers body. Her tears though had stopped sometime ago. The sun had started to rise, lightening the sky to a pale golden color. The endless night was at an end. The forces of Niam were heading back to their borders, the combined armies of the kingdoms following. Bodies littered the ground and it was soaked in blood. The haze of magic hung heavy in the air, settling like a fog.
Ehlan knelt down next to Taura and wrapped an arm around her shoulders pulling her into an embrace. Taura buried her head in Ehlan's shoulder stared down at the body of her brother. He looked as if he was sleeping.
"People died anyway," Taura finally said.
"Yes, but not near as many that would have if you had not faced Daimys," Ehlan answered.
"It's over now Ehlan."
"Yes it is," agreed the blond woman. They fell silent again.
"What do we do now Ehlan?"
"We live," was the simple answer.
"But what about the Throne, the Tunonien?"
"It's only us Taura, just you and I. Everything else will work out," Ehlan told her, confidently.
"But…" Taura began.
"No buts, Taura," Ehlan cut her off. The two looked at each other. Taura's eyes searched for the truth in Ehlan's. Satisfied with what she found she nodded and lowered her head to Ehlan's shoulder. Taura absently stroked Anel's hair running her fingers through his familiar locks.
"Well then I guess we have a ceremony to plan," Taura finally said.
"Yes we do," was the soft reply.
A smile stole over both their lips as they watched the sun rise higher, turning the pale light into the bright reds, oranges, and blues of a new day. They watched as the sun's rays stole over them bathing the three of them in its warmth. The darkness receded and the first day unfolded before them.
Return to the Academy