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!
And it shall come to pass that He will break free. The Soul Stealer will loosen the bonds that bind him and He shall once more walk the world. When the winter winds race down from the mountains early, look to the Heavens. When the twin moons, Tilen and his brother Bilen, rise red the time of the Unbreaking is almost upon us. When Blood once more stains the High Blood Throne and there is strife in the House of Blood, the binds will loosen. The Blood will deliver the Carussa, the One who will lead the Realms of Man against the minions of Evil. The Outlander of the Blessed Tribe will bring all the Realms of Man together and lead the armies. When the noon sky darkens as if night the Blessed Tribe will march, to fight. Brother against brother, sister against brother. When the large sister moon, Milen, rises red the Soul Stealer will break free. For now is the time of the Antranik, the Battle of Souls.
It was dark. The darkness was complete. Nothing moved in the oppressive darkness. Silence hung heavy. Nothing escaped the blackness. It coursed through tainted blood, erupting into the world in a maze of hate and destruction. Confining light in its completeness. Slowly the darkness began its journey.
The wind began to blow cold, the smell of snow drifted down from the mountain ranges. The nights became longer, daylight soft and weak. Eyes turned to the sky as the small moon, Tilen, rose red, the deep, rich color of newly shed blood. Its twin, Bilen, and the larger middle moon stayed white. The priestesses breathed a sigh of relief. Darkness was coming. Death was in the air, but not yet. They still had time. It was the time of the Prophecy. The time to prepare.
Taura was cold. She hated to sit and watch the sheep eat grass, especially when the wind had turned chill. The east wind had started to blow. The snows would be coming soon. They would be coming early this year. Taura hoped her father was on his way. He had told her he would be back before the snows to help her bring the herd down the mountain.
Taura hated sheep more than she hated sitting in the cold. They were smelly and dumb, in her opinion. The little ones were cute, she conceded. Casting a baleful look around, she assured herself that they were all accounted for. Taura smiled as their herd dog came bounding over to her. His gray, shaggy coat was matted in a few places. He settled down next to her, his eyes sharply watching over the herd as it grazed.
With a long, suffering sigh, Taura moved to a more comfortable position. Even so, the rough bark of the tree still dug into her back. Absently, she brushed aside a lock of her deep, auburn hair. It was always coming loose from the leather thong she used to tie it back. She had wanted to cut it ever since her eleventh passing. Her mother, though, had refused to let her. Now, after twenty passings, it still hung behind her, halfway down her back.
Taura sighed once more for effect. The dog looked up at her, a smile in his eyes. He was used to her sighs and her muttering to herself. The Spirit Festival was underway and she had wanted to attend the celebration. Her father, though, had sent her to attend the herd, while her brother, Anel, went to the village of Demus to take part in the celebration. The Spirit Festival was to celebrate the God, Bellus, the God of Death. When you died, Bellus would escort your spirit to His House to await the time of Rebirth. Then the Goddess, Valeus, in all her Goodness, took your spirit and gave it life again.
In a moment of aggravation, Taura threw a pinecone in the direction of the herd. She ignored the look given to her by the herd dog. It was unfair, she thought, how her parents gave Anel special treatment. Big deal, he was the son. Her parents had obviously forgotten that daughters were just as important as sons were. They inherited titles, and lands, why there were even women soldiers and generals. There were no gender differences in the world, nowhere but in her small home.
Taura spent a moment with her favorite daydream, imagining herself on the battlefield. Her mail covered in blood, deep gashes, where her enemy's blade caught her. The horse beneath her, arrogant and proud, shaking his head at all who dared oppose him and his noble rider. Her sword raised over her head in triumph. The enemy routed and running away, her army cheering behind her! Oh, what a glorious dream. One she and her brother, Anel, had play acted as children. Many a time they had dreamt of leaving the farm and going on a glorious quest, in search of riches and glory.
A quest for gold, adventure awaited her. Anything was better than sitting against a tree and watching dumb sheep. She knew the time had come for her to either move on or settle down on a farm of her own with her very own dumb sheep farmer. The thought brought a shudder to her. It was not that she was opposed to the idea; it was just that she wanted to live, to see something of the world before settling down.
Taura had absolutely no desire to marry any of the men of Demus her mother had suddenly started to invite to sup with them. Taura knew it would only be a matter of time before her mother started to invite eligible daughters home for her. Taura wished her mother would give as much effort to finding a companion for her elder brother. But Anel had told their parents that he refused to be forced into a joining. He told them that he would choose a wife when he felt the time was right. Their parents had respected his decision and had focused their attentions on their youngest child. Sighing once again, she pulled her cloak tighter around her. The wind was cutting through the trees.
Frowning, she took a deep breath. She could smell snow in the air. It was too early for snow, yet the clouds hung heavy and gray, ponderous with moisture. There was the distinct smell of new snow in the air. Standing Taura picked up her father's staff. He had let her take it with her, half as a bribe, and half as an incentive to work on some of the techniques he had been teaching her. Under the watchful eye of her mother, her father had been teaching both Taura and Anel the fundamentals of both the sword and the staff, as well as how to defend themselves without weapons. Taura had asked her farmer father if he had been a soldier at one time. His eyes had become sad and he told her that had been a long, long time ago. She had noticed the small, dismayed look that had passed between her parents. They had never discussed it again.
Looking around, Taura decided not to wait for her father. There was something funny about the weather and she did not want to get caught on the mountain with just the dumb sheep for company. Whistling for the dog, she began the slow, arduous trek down the mountain.
Taura lowered herself to the ground. She had been herding the sheep down the mountain for the last three days. She had expected to see her father, on his way to join her. He was over due. Her eyes ran over the herd, so far, so good with them. After a brief rest she went in search of firewood and supper. Taura decided to camp along a small creek for a few days, giving herself and the herd the chance to relax, and for her father to arrive.
Taura waited two days before deciding to continue. Her father still had not come and the weather was getting worse. Even though they lived in the high northern reaches, she knew that winter should have been at least two months away. Snow had not fallen, but the days were getting shorter and the mornings dawned so cold Taura could see her breath in the morning air. She decided to push on and get off the mountain. The sheep were not at all happy about being herded down and twice she had to go find an errant ewe that had decided she did not want to go down the mountain.
It took Taura three more days to make it off the mountain. The winds still blew and snow was still in the air. A few snow flurries had started to fall, but thankfully the weather held. The sky had remained an impossible blue. Taura breathed a sigh of relief; as she encountered the well worn trail that lead to her family's small homestead.
The house was small, but everyone in her family of four loved it. The house had a large room for meals and cooking and socializing, and one room for her parents. Taura and Anel shared the loft space above. It was warm and homey, and delicious smells always drifted from the hearth fire.
Taura quickened her pace as the farmstead came into view. She made quick work, with the help of the herd dog, to get the sheep safely put away in the corral. As she latched the gate she looked around, suddenly noticing how quiet it was. Taura looked around for the chickens that should be scratching the dirt. A small whine escaped from the dog.
"Its okay boy," she reassured softly, reaching down to pat his broad head.
Her gray eyes searched the homestead. Everything was quiet, too quiet. No sound could be heard from the cows, nothing moved. A frown stole over her features as she moved closer toward the house. Taura stopped suddenly; an astonished expression stole over her face.
There was no smoke coming from the chimney. In all her twenty passings, Taura could not remember a time when there had not been smoke billowing forth. She slowly started to make her way again. It was not till she was closer did she see the lump on the ground. It was sprawled in front of the house. The breeze tugged at the cloth covering it. A terrible fear began to work its way up to her throat. Her eyes wide, she began to run.
"Poppa! Poppa!" she cried out.
Taura slammed to a stop at the object on the ground. Her eyes refused to believe what she saw. Her father lay on the ground, his blue gray eyes wide and filled with a dreadful knowledge. His skin was pale and waxen. Taura dropped to her knees, too stunned to cry, only then noticing the pool of dried blood under her father. Reaching out with a trembling hand, she took her father's hand. Taura felt tears pressing against her eyes.
"Oh, Poppa," anguish making her voice thick.
With her other hand she slowly smoothed down his auburn hair, her mind not believing he was not asleep. Suddenly her head snapped up. Fear gnawed at her. Jumping up she ran into the silent house.
The sudden darkness disoriented her for a moment. Slowly, her eyes began to focus on all the familiar objects. The rough wooden table with two benches, the cut flowers in a bowl in the middle of the table. The hearth was dark. The silence was deafening. Gone were the sounds of youthful voices raised in sibling anger, gone were the quiet rumblings of her father's voice. Gone were the dulcet, loving tones of her mother's voice raised in song.
"Mama," she called out softly, hopefully. There was no answer.
Silence and the stale smell of unused space answered her. With silent trepidation she walked deeper into the home. Fear beat heavily into her heart. She was afraid she knew what she would find. Taura walked slowly, almost in a daze toward the closed door of her parent's bedroom. She raised her hand and turned the knob.
Even though her head was prepared her heart was not. A putrid stench slammed into her as she opened the door. Steeling herself, she entered the small room that her parents shared. Her eyes did not at first comprehend what she was seeing. Slowly, the images began to assert themselves. A form was stretched out on the bed; a deep russet colored stain was beneath it, the face was covered by a pillow. There were countless cuts and rents in the fabric of the once blue dress.
"Oh, Mama," Taura whispered around the hard, hot lump in her throat. "Oh Gods, who could have done this?" Taura fell to her knees and wept. Hot tears fell unheeded to stain the floor. It was some time later before she moved.
Taura was numb. She barely remembered building the two funeral pyres side by side, near the small garden her mother loved so much. It took her almost the entire day. After wrapping both her parents in linen shrouds, she laid them on their bed. Exhausted, she collapsed onto her own bed and fell into a deep sleep.
The next day, Taura knelt at the foot of her parents' bed, intoning the ritual prayers that would guide their souls to the House of Bellus. She prayed from sun up to sun down, her voice raw from the words and the tears. The second day of the ritual, found Taura once more on her knees, this time saying the prayers to the Goddess, Valeus. Advising Her that two of Her loyal worshipers had passed on. Asking Her for Her guidance and for the chance for her parents to be Reborn. That their souls may once again live and find each other and that they may live out the life that was taken from them. Once again, she prayed from sun up to sun down.
On the third day, Taura managed to place the empty shell of her parents on their funeral pyres. Her voice broke as she spoke the final benediction to the three Gods. As her voice rose and fell she somberly touched a lit torch to the linen cloaked bodies. Taura watched, dry-eyed as the flames engulfed the bodies. Softly she began to sing the mourning song that would guide Bellus to the fire and the fleeing spirits. Once the fire was out she plodded back towards the empty house.
The next morning Taura sat empty eyed at the table. She thought of her brother Anel. He should have been back from the festival by now. Taura wished she could have waited for him to get home before sending their parents on their final journey. But she knew she could not have waited. To wait could have jeopardized their souls. Anel did not even know his parents had been murdered.
Murdered, she shuddered; it had such a chilling ring to it. Her parents were honest farmers they had no enemies. Everyone in the village of Demus knew and liked them. It was hard to believe someone had done this. Taura dreaded the thought of telling her brother. She slowly stood, feeling suddenly very old. She looked around and took stock of her surroundings. Taura knew she could not sit around any longer. She needed to move around. So, while waiting for her brother to arrive, she went about cleaning up the house. Taura took the bloodstained straw mattress and linens outside, followed by broken pottery and a chair. They must have been broken in the struggle, Taura decided. She spent the day at the mind-numbing task of setting her home to rights. Anything to keep from thinking she decided.
It was late before she finally stopped. She stood looking at the still empty hearth. Taura could not bring herself to light a fire. Her thoughts were in a whirl as she thought about leaving and meeting Anel on the road. Thoughts of vengeance began to emerge as she stood. Suddenly she heard a noise. Whirling around Taura looked for a suitable weapon.
"Ho there! Gelen? Maura?" came a voice. Taura stood still. "Ho there!" came the insistent voice again.
Suddenly the doorway was blocked. Taura could not make out the features of the form filling out the doorway.
"Taura?" came the gentle question. The form moved and features became recognizable. "Taura girl, are you okay?" Taura recognized the speaker.
"Enoc!" she cried out in relief. Her father's friend and neighbor had been a frequent visitor. "Oh Enoc," at the sight of the friendly face Taura burst into tears.
"There now, little one," his gruff voice softening. "What's the matter?"
"They're dead, Enoc," Taura managed to say around the tears.
"Dead?" Enoc asked, only slightly surprised. Taura's tears continued to fall. Enoc wrapped her into his warm embrace. "What are you talking about girl?"
"I came down the mountain; I came early because of the weather. Poppa said he'd come, but he didn't," Taura began, her sobbing quickly becoming hysterical. "I found them Enoc, they were dead, and someone," she gasped for air, "someone had cut out their hearts!" she wailed. Enoc sighed, his worse fears realized.
"Shh, Taura girl, shh," Enoc said softly, still holding onto the sobbing and trembling young woman.
It was much later before Taura was able to tell Enoc everything she knew. As she told her story his frown deepened and his eyes avoided hers.
"Now, Anel, is late coming home and I am afraid something has happened to him," Taura said. "I don't know who could have done this. Everyone loves Poppa and Mother. I just don't understand," anger filled her voice.
Enoc slowly lowered himself down on the bench opposite her. A weighty sigh escaped.
"Taura girl, there are rumors in town, that is why I came," Enoc's voice was sad and heavy with the weight of his message.
"What? Enoc, what are they saying? Was it the Queen's men?" she asked fearfully.
The news lately coming from the capital city had not been good, rumors of hangings for so much as looking in the Queen's direction. One man had been arrested and executed for daring to wear the same color robe as the Queen.
"Nay girl, it wasn't the Queen's men," Enoc sighed again. He did not want to have to tell her the news he knew he must. "Rumor says that Anel ran through town in a hurry. He met up with three other young men in the square. After they left, two days back, the families of the other young men were found dead," silence met his news.
"I don't understand what you are saying," Taura said confused. Enoc looked at her sadly.
She started to shake her head.
"No, I don't believe Anel could have anything to do with this," Taura rose and strode over to the cabinet on the wall. It was where her mother had kept an earthenware jug of wine. She poured herself a large amount, downing it with a swift motion. Tears stung her eyes as she poured a measure for Enoc and another for herself. "Anel would never have hurt our parents," she insisted, sitting down again.
"Those young men were known as gentle boys too, Taura. No one would have thought they could have killed their parents. That's not the worst of it though," he paused and took a drink of his wine. "The Priestess says they were killed in a ritual for Daimys,"
Taura felt the blood drain from her face. Her eyes showed the fear she felt in her very soul. Wordless, she made the sign of the Triad, to ward-away evil.
Daimys was the God of Darkness, of all that was evil. If you died in battle or of natural causes your soul was Reborn in the House of Bellus, but if a servant of Daimys killed you, your soul was lost. Daimys was the Soul Stealer; he fed off the souls of the vanquished. You could never be Reborn; your soul would add power to the Dark God. His servants practiced vile rituals, sacrificing humans on an altar soaked with blood. They would eat the heart of anyone they killed to ensure that his spirit would travel through them and feed Daimys.
His servants believed that Daimys would one day break free from the prison of light that his brothers, the Twin Gods Bellus and Mirus, the God of War and Fire, and their sister the Goddess Valeus, had placed him in. Once he broke free, Daimys, the God of Darkness, would then rule the world and plunge what was light into eternal dark. Loyal servants would then be blessed with everlasting life and be set to rule over those conquered in the final battle, Antranik, which meant Battle of Souls, in the old tongue. Taura remembered only vaguely, the words of a Prophesy that her father had told her. She once again made the sign of the Triad; to ward off the evil just the mention of Daimys' name could bring.
"It is not possible that Anel knew them. It is not possible that he would even know a servant of Daimys, much less know a ritual of the Dark God's," Taura insisted.
"Daut, Creg, and Zabet," Enoc spoke softly, naming three child hood friends of Anel's. Three boys that Taura had played with, that she had flirted with at the last Festival of Valeus. A horrified expression stole over her face.
"Their families are all dead, their hearts cut out and missing, and now you tell me that your parents are also dead, killed in the same manner. All four boys are missing. I fear the worst," Enoc's voice was sad, weary. "I am truly sorry Taura."
Taura shook her head. She could not believe what he was saying. There was no way Anel could be a servant of the Dark God. Not her brother. Even as she thought it, other thoughts crept in. Her brother had grown moody and irritable of late. He did go into the village for great lengths of time. Anel had become secretive and had spoken harshly to their mother on numerous occasions. Taura had recently overheard her mother speaking to their father. She had grown worried about her son; he had been spending large amounts of time in the forest with his three childhood friends, neglecting his duties. Taura shook her head again; she would not believe that Anel could have murdered their parents, no matter what Enoc believed.
"I must find him; they must have taken him against his will. He may have tried to stop them," even as she spoke the words, she was not entirely sure she believed them. "Which way did they go?"
"West," came the resigned answer. Taura shivered. West, toward the temple of Daimys, west toward the secular country of Niam, where Daimys was considered the One True God, her mind informed her. West was also the direction of the capital city Borcea, her heart insisted. Daimys' power was the greatest in the west, for the sun, the symbol of light and power for his God siblings, set in the west, plunging the world into his blessed darkness.
"Then I will have to follow him," Taura announced, lifting her chin defiantly. "If he does not know of our parent's death, then I must tell him, and if they have captured him, then I must release him. I am sorry Enoc, but I can't believe this of him," Taura was adamant.
"All right Taura, I pray that it is as you believe. When shall you go?"
"I will leave at first light."
"I'll be glad to watch over the farm until you return."
"Thank you Enoc, all the livestock but the sheep were either slaughtered or driven off," Taura said softly to the somber man. "When you take your herd in to the village, take ours, there should be enough to pay this years taxes."
"There should be more than enough Taura," Enoc told her.
"Keep the rest then, for your trouble," she said to him.
Enoc started to protest, but the look on her face told him she would not heed his arguments. He decided not to say anything and just give her back the extra when she came home. If she came home, he thought grimly to himself. He knew the Prophesy, and he knew Taura's place in it, even if she did not. He also knew that it she had to take this journey alone.
"Fine, Taura, I will take good care of the farm for you," he told her. Taura nodded and her gaze fell back to the rough table under her hands.
After Enoc left, herding the sheep, Taura looked around her small home. She sighed at the thought of all the things that needed to be done before she could leave. Taura began by pulling out her pack. She gathered enough cheese, bread and dried meat to last her for a seven week. The rest she took up on the mountain for the pack of wolves that roamed the area. Back at the house, she boarded up most of the windows, leaving the large one in the front open till the next morning. She cleaned out the hearth and then built a small fire for herself. Taura then thoroughly swept the home. She made quick work of securing the windows and doors in the barn, shoveling out the hay into the now empty corral.
Taura filled the remaining daylight hours by making a small pile of tunics and trousers. She decided to leave her robes and dresses, since she was unsure what kind of traveling conditions she would find herself in. Taura made a close inspection of her boots and decided to leave her current pair and wear her spare pair, as they were not as worn. Tears threatened to fall as she remembered when her father had bought those boots for her.
They had gone into the village of Demus to sell off some of the herd. As they were visiting the merchants, Taura came across a merchant selling goods from Tunon. Taura had fallen in love with an ornately crafted sword sheath, but her father quickly came over and pulled it from her hand. It was the only time she had seen her father visibly upset. As he started to pull her away, Taura reminded him that he had promised her a new pair of boots.
"That I did, little one," her father said to her as he headed them back towards another cobbler. "So pick the pair you would like," he pointed to the limited selection that the cobbler had available.
"Poppa, I don't see anything I like here. I would like a pair of Tunonien boots. Everyone says that they are the best. They say that they are made from the hides of animals that the Tunonien wizards created just for their skins."
"Taura, you should not listen to that rubbish," her father shook his head good-naturedly. "Now, there is nothing wrong with these boots."
Taura sighed dramatically and half-heartedly picked through the selection. With a heavy sigh she finally dropped her hands. He watched with a smile of fatherly indulgence.
"Oh come on Taura girl, lets go see if you can find anything back there," he finally relented indicating the merchant with the Tunonien goods. Taura gave a squeal of delight and hugged her father. Laughing, she led him back to the merchant's stall.
Taura had run her hands over the buttery soft leather of the boots. She smiled broadly as her father paid the man the silver he requested. As they started to leave she noticed the staff the man had leaning against a wall within arm's reach. It was hard, dark wood with symbols drawn into the wood. It looked just like her fathers.
"Poppa, look, his staff is just like yours!" she pointed out surprised. Her father had told her that there were no others like it. Her father paled at the remark.
"Like that, do ya girl?" asked the merchant. "It was made by the wizards in Tunon girl, has magic don't ya know," he grinned.
Taura looked at him wide eyed, soaking in everything he was saying. Stories about the Tunonien were always in high demand and were always more fantastic than the last. Gelen growled and angrily grabbed Taura's arm.
"Come on Taura, we have things to do," he pulled her away from the grinning merchant. Taura looked back at the man, her eyes straying to the staff that looked just like her fathers.
Taura fought back tears as she clutched the boots to her. They had never spoken of the incident again. She had never gotten the chance to ask him why he was so angry with the merchant. Taura put the boots down and wiped the tears from her eyes. She decided to take the staff with her, but she knew she would need another weapon. Taking a deep breath she made her way to her parent's bedroom. She went to the chest at the foot of their bed. Taura was careful to keep her eyes off the bed where someone had killed her mother. Steeling herself, she opened the deep chest.
"Oh Poppa!" she cried. A sob rent the air as she clutched a well-worn tunic of her father's to her chest. A sudden wave of longing for her parents filled her.
After the fresh storm had diminished, she put the tunic aside. Underneath the tunic was her father's waterproof gray cloak. She set that to one side to take with her. Under that, she found her father's dagger in a plain sheath. That was added to the cloak. Taura reached in again and underneath a few more tunics she touched the cold steel of her father's sword. Reverently she pulled it out of the chest.
Its plain hilt was worked over with well-worn leather. The scabbard was plain, but excellently made. The leather belt was supple. Pulling the sword free, Taura checked the blade. It was in good condition, looking as if it had never been used before. It also looked as if it had been recently sharpened. She remembered the day her father had first brought it out of its hiding place in the chest.
A group of bandits were plaguing the citizens of Demus and the surrounding areas. Gelen had been afraid for his family. A group of the men decided they would need to flush out the bandits from their hiding place and turn them over to the Queen's magistrate.
Taura had achieved twelve passings and Anel fifteen. They were sitting at the table doing their daily lessons when their father had come from his room carrying the sword. They had grown suddenly silent, their eyes on him.
"Gelen is it necessary?" her mother, Maura, had asked softly. Her husband nodded grimly, just once. The children had tried to concentrate on their studies, but it was hard as the noise from the whetstone filled the room.
Their father had always preached to them that violence never solved anything. He taught them to not pay attention to the taunting of the village children, taught them to walk away. Taura took his advice, while Anel had a hard time. He was always getting into one scuffle after another. But seeing the sword brought new questions to the children. When had their father needed a sword and why had he learned to use it? Taura and Anel had stayed up late that night talking. They were nervous. Their father had left earlier, his sword strapped to his waist. They had decided that at one time their father had been a soldier, maybe even a soldier for hire, and after a battle he decided that he had seen enough bloodshed to last him a lifetime. He had met their mother and they moved to this remote mountain and started their family.
Taura's father had returned days later, his eyes haunted. Sometime after that, he began the rigorous training of his children. He taught them to use the staff and the sword, as well as the bow and arrow. He taught them to ride and how to live off the land, how to hunt and trap. He had them lead the herd to grazing grounds high up on the mountain. He would make them stay for long periods of time by themselves or with each other, giving them only a days worth of rations. Gelen honed them into lean, hard, capable fighters, as well as instilling in them a sense of honor. Their father taught them to walk away first, then if all else failed use their weapons. Gelen taught them never to use what he taught them unless they had no choice and only then in self-defense.
He may have taught them the fundamentals of fighting with sword, staff and their hands, but he took no joy in it. Gelen often watched them practice with such a look of profound sadness that it hurt Taura to look at him during those times. Taura was a perfect pupil for her father. Anel on the other hand, wanted to know more. Her brother wanted to know how to kill, to maim, and he reveled in the things Gelen taught them.
Taura remembered once, her parents were watching her and Anel spar. They were fighting with staffs and Taura was holding her own against her larger brother as he was viciously attacking. Something had caught her eye and she took her eyes off Anel. Her parents were standing holding hands tightly. Tears were actually streaming down their faces as they watched their children fight. Taura was puzzled; it was only a game to them. Anel, seeing that she was distracted, pushed his advantage. Taura never saw the blow that knocked her out. She remembered trying to open her eyes but they did not seem to work. She heard a buzzing in her ears, which soon cleared to her parent's voices.
"It was eerie watching them. I could almost see the adults they will become," her mother was saying. "Oh Gelen, is there any way we can stop this?" there was sadness in her mother's voice.
"I wish there was my love. It tears my heart out to know what will become of them," her father's voice was pained and tight. "Teres was very clear. The signs are starting, the time is coming when we must let them go and hope that all the prophecies are wrong."
"Is she ready?" her mother asked softly. Her father sighed deeply.
"She has excelled at every aspect. I have taught her everything I know. If we were at home she would be sailing through the Academy. She is as ready as I can make her without," he stopped and Taura felt a cool hand on her forehead. "Taura girl?" he asked softly. "Are you awake?"
"Poppa?" Taura groaned. "What happened?"
"You looked away and Anel's staff slipped by yours my love. You have a nasty bump, but I think you will live. After all, you do have a hard head," Gelen laughed gently, smoothing her hair back.
With a fresh set of tears, Taura set the sword down on the cloak. She reached back into the chest and felt around. Her fingers fell on soft felt. Bringing it out, Taura recognized the black velvet pouch. It contained her amulet.
Opening the pouch, she pulled the silver amulet out by its leather thong. Her father had given it to her on her sixteenth passing. On the face was a raised engraving of a sword and staff, crossed. It was the symbol on the other side that had always fascinated her. It was worn down, as if by someone rubbing it constantly. Like the sword and staff, it was slightly raised. Other symbols and words in a foreign language were etched into the silver along the edge of the medallion.
When she asked her father what the symbol was, he said it was the symbol of his family and over the years and generations the meaning had been lost. He said he wasn't even sure if he knew what the symbol was. To Taura it looked a little like a scale, evenly balanced. A vine seemed to wrap around the base, rising along the middle section to branch out over the top beam.
Taura had thought she lost it. She had told her father, shortly after he gave it to her, that the medallion would sometimes grow hot or cold to the touch. Taura also told her parents that she would some times hear a strange buzzing sound in her ears. It had only started after she had taken to wearing the medallion. She had been puzzled by the almost panicked look her parents had shared. Soon after that she had woken up one morning without the amulet. Her parents and Anel had helped her look for it. They never found it.
Taura was surprised to find it now, hidden in her father's chest. She let her eyes trace the vines as they intertwined with the scale. As she let her mind wander, she felt the horrors of the last few days start to fade. Taura could feel the healing process begin. With trembling fingers she slowly put the amulet around her neck. She felt it settle on her chest comfortably, it felt as if it belonged there.
Taura decided to go through the rest of the clothes in the chest, to see if she could find anything else of use. She quickly emptied the chest of clothes and was about to put them back when she noticed the small latch at the bottom. Frowning, she put down the tunics and reached in. Pulling on the small latch she was startled to find a false bottom.
Inside was a large leather pouch, a smaller pouch and two small scrolls. Taura pulled out one of the scrolls and unrolled it. The language was not familiar. She scanned the page to see if she could read any of it. Nothing was familiar. She put the two scrolls aside and reached for the smaller of the two pouches. Taura opened it and peered inside. She was so startled by the contents that she almost dropped the pouch.
The pouch contained gems. Diamonds, blood red rubies, emeralds and startling blue sapphires filled the pouch. Small stones for the most part, but still a few larger ones. She poured some out into her hand. Taura blinked several times, not sure if she was really seeing them. Quickly she put them back into the pouch and opened the larger one. She was even more startled. It was filled with gold, silver and copper pieces. There was a fortune in the two pouches. The family could have lived as well as the Queen for the rest of their lives, just on the contents of the larger pouch. Where had her father gotten so much wealth? She knew farming and sheep herding did not bring this much wealth. There was one more item in the bottom, a piece of folded paper. With trembling fingers Taura lifted out the paper and unfolded it. She recognized her father's handwriting.
"Taura, if you are reading this, it means both your mother and I have passed to the House of Bellus. Know daughter, that we loved you dearly. Please do not mourn our passing, for we are together as always, as has been written. The days to come are not going to be easy for you Taura girl. Know that we are watching you. Do what you feel is right in your heart and you will always be free.
"Things are going to happen that you are not going to understand Taura. I wish that I could be there to guide your steps. It has been written that you must walk this path alone. Remember all that your mother and I have taught you. Follow your heart and never forget who you are. No matter how high you rise, remember where you come from and hold that in good stead.
"Our pride and our love in you will not diminish; nothing you do from this day forward will change that. You will have to make hard, almost impossible decisions. Know daughter that your decisions will not be frowned on by our souls and you have our trust in all that you do.
"I know you do not understand these things that I write here. Some day, my daughter, you will. I pray that the events that will shape your life will be kind to you in the end. Goddess willing, you find happiness at the end of the arduous journey you are about to make.
"Daughter, we love you and you carry our pride and joy with you. In this space you will find two scrolls. Guard them well and tell no one that you have them. One day you will meet one who will teach you the language and the scrolls will help you face the Task you were born to have. Also, you will find two pouches, one of coin and one of gems. They are yours now daughter. They are honestly got and now they belong to you. Use them wisely.
"Fare thee well our daughter, Goddess Blessing to you," it was signed simply, "Poppa."
Taura put the letter down and let the hot tears fall once more.
The next morning dawned bright and clear. The sun rose in the east and began its slow morning rise. The air was cool and crisp and it held a hint of winter. Taura could feel and smell the snow in the air. After boarding up the last window and latching the door, Taura carefully settled the sword to hang on her back. It felt so right! With a small smile she draped her cloak over her shoulders. She picked up the pack and her staff. Taura looked around the yard one last time. With out a backward glance Taura left her childhood home behind and headed west.
Taura traveled throughout the early morning. She had never traveled this way alone before. Always before she had been with her father and the sheep they were to sell. Taura was not sure how long it would take her. Not for the first time she wished her brother had not taken the only horse. She also wished for company. The herd dog had gone with Enoc.
When the sun was high overhead, she stopped for a rest. As she sat and ate an apple Taura thought back to the last time she and her father had traveled this road. They had been low on supplies and her mother's naming day was coming up. Her father had wanted to get her something special. Taura had been moping around. She had wanted to go into Demus with Anel for the festival and her parents had told her no. When the offer to accompany her father came, she grudgingly accepted.
In childish fashion, Taura refused to talk to him. He had tried to make conversation many times and she would either ignore him or make one-word answers. As they were returning home he silently handed her a leather pouch. Looking into it, she gasped in surprise. Inside was a silver band intricately worked. Taura carefully pulled out the thin silver bracelet.
"It's beautiful," she breathed. "Mother will love it," she told her father. He looked down at her and smiled his soft, sad smile.
"It's for you Taura girl," he told her.
"Poppa, you shouldn't have," she protested.
"I should. Taura, someday you will understand why your mother and I keep you from the festivals," Gelen told her softly.
"Afraid I might meet someone?" she teased. He looked deep into her eyes, almost as if he was looking at something buried deep into her soul.
"Yes," he replied simply, Taura laughed delightedly and hugged him. She put the band around her wrist, where it stayed.
Taura sighed and took a deep drink of water. Wiping tears away, she set out again. It was late afternoon when she reached the small village of Demus. Taura decided not to stay in the town, remembering that Enoc had said that Anel had already moved on. The sun was ready to set as she made her camp for the night. Taura was up almost before the sun the next morning. She wanted no delay. Taura broke camp and made her way toward the west.
As she walked, she let her mind wander. Images of her parents and Anel occupied her thoughts. Images of the family gatherings, feasts and the hard work they all did.
Taura finally looked up in surprise. It had seemed to her as if she had just set out along the road. But just ahead she could make out the beginnings of a village. Small clusters of homes, a well traveled road. If memory served her, it should be the town of Fadgon. She had never been there, but her father and Anel had gone a few times to buy and sell. One day away from the farm and she had already traveled farther than she had ever been. She wondered how much farther she would travel before this all ended. Taura had remembered that Anel had told her that Fadgon was a busy town. It was actually the only major town in their small district. Fadgon was where the Queen's tax collectors lived, as well as her local magistrate. There was also a garrison of the Queen's Army.
Her steady pace brought her closer. It was a far cry from the small farming village that was the hub of her small community. The noise, even from a good distance away was close to deafening to her. Taura's eyes grew large as she made her way toward the gate for the wall that surrounded the town.
Two guards stood on either side of the open wooden gate. They watched, almost disinterested, as people, carts, horses and dogs, came and went. In their hands, they knowingly held vicious looking pikes. Well-used and cared for swords were sheathed at their waists. They were dressed in the Queen's livery; red tunics trimmed in black with black trousers and high gleaming black boots. A sash of deep blue, trimmed in silver was across their broad shoulders, indicating to those who knew, that the Heir Princess Ehlan, was in residence at the small court. Taura, of course, did not know that, as members of the royal family had little cause to come to her village. She walked through the gates with barely a glance from the guards.
Once inside, her eyes became even wider. There were people everywhere, most in plain simple clothes of homespun fabric, dresses, tunics, hose and trousers all in serviceable colors. There were men and women in fighting leathers, armed and ready for anything. People in brightly colored robes hurried to and fro on one errand or another. Mothers walked with small children, carrying baskets with fruit, cheeses and vegetables. Street vendors called out their wares, carts overflowing with goods. Delicious smells drifted toward Taura, reminding her that she was hungry. She felt for the pouch at her waist. It was sparsely filled with copper and a few silver pieces. She had two other purses hidden on her person. Her father had taught her not to keep her money together and she carefully kept her eye on the crowd.
"May I have a meat pie?" she asked one vendor. The smell of the meat pie had drifted to her, making her stomach growl. The man reached into a basket and pulled out a cloth wrapped around a steaming pastry,
"Four coppers," his brusque tone belying his pleasant face. Taura pulled the coins from her pouch and quickly paid him. Turning away, she took a bite; the bubbling stew inside burned her tongue. Carefully, she finished chewing and began walking again. Finishing her meat pie, she bought a skin of ale from a brewer. Drinking from the skin, she looked around trying to absorb everything at once.
"Hey, now, youngun', for two silvers I can give you the time of yer life," came a woman's voice behind her.
Taura stopped walking and turned to see a woman with a low cut blouse leaning from a street level window. The house was a bit run down, with brown shudders and had more windows than Taura had ever seen in one house before. Taura looked around the street, looking for the person the woman was addressing.
"I'm talkin ta you girlie!" The woman laughed coarsely.
"Don't listen ta her darlin' if it's an education you'll be wanting, come over here and see ole Kyra," another woman said from a window in the next building.
There were women leaning out of windows all up and down the street. The woman's hair was piled high atop her head. Taura gasped at the color. No one's hair could have been so red without help. Her blouse was pulled low to reveal an expanse of white flesh. Taura blushed deeply when she realized what they were selling. Still blushing, Taura hurried away from the women. Their coarse laughter floated after her.
Taura slowly made her way toward the center of town. The sounds, smells and the people were a bit overwhelming to Taura. She kept her hand clenched firmly on her staff and at the pouch at her waist. Taura tried to watch everything at once, hoping to see some sign of her brother and his friends.
She found a tavern and decided to go inside to look around. Not finding anything she left and went into another. Questions to the innkeepers brought no information. Having gone into every inn in that section of town, Taura stopped a young boy and asked for directions. The boy told her in a lilting voice where the last three inns were. With a sigh, Taura headed in the direction he pointed.
Taura let her eyes adjust to the darkness in the common room of the inn. According to the last few people she asked this was the last inn in town. Looking around at the weak fire in the hearth, the wobbly tables and chairs, and the rough looking customers, she decided that she would not be staying here.
"What can I get for you girl?" came the gruff voice of the innkeeper.
His eyes raked over the girl, taking in her tunic and trousers of homespun fabric. Taura made her way to the burly man with gray hair. He stood next to a counter; barrels were stacked behind him. A stained apron was wrapped around his large frame and the stale odor of flatulence clung to him. A slovenly serving girl was swirling a cloth along the counter, wiping crumbs onto the floor.
"Cider?" she asked hopefully.
She had learned earlier that information was more forth coming if you bought something. The innkeeper gave her a look over before nodding once. Turning to one of the barrels, he filled a stone mug with liquid.
"One silver," he told her.
He watched with interest as she dug into her pocket for the silver. She let him see the five copper pieces in her hand, before pulling out the only silver. The look on his face changed to disgust, not at her, but at his situation. The innkeeper snatched up the coin and pocketed it. Taura took a small sip. Surprisingly its crispness rolled over her tongue. She took another larger sip.
"It's good," she commented. The innkeeper nodded at the compliment.
"I make it myself. I don't think I've seen you around here."
"I just arrived. I am looking for my brother. Maybe you have seen him?" she began.
Taura quickly described her brother. The two looked almost like twins growing up, so as she talked she described herself. The tall lean frame, the auburn tresses, and the gray almond shaped eyes. Taura's nose was smaller, but still they shared the same bold shape with lightly flared nostrils. Finely shaped eyebrows, high cheekbones, full lips and a determined chin completed the picture.
"He would have been with three other men," she finished.
"Saw a group like that, a couple days back," the innkeeper looked even more sour. A huge frown framed his face. "One of them was your brother you say?"
"Yes," she became excited, "you saw them? Are they still in town? If not, do you know where they are headed?" the questions bubbled forth.
"I don't know if I'd be in a hurry to see them girl. They were up to no good," the voice was dark.
"They were here?"
"Yes, girl. They were. They bought horses and left about three days ago."
"That doesn't sound like trouble to me."
"Girl, after they left, we found the body of one of my serving girls in their room. Her bleeding heart had been cut from her body," he spat. "A group of soldiers went after them, but they came back yesterday, they lost them."
Taura let his words sink in. There was no way her brother could be involved in this. It had to be the others. They must have tricked him or forced him to come along. There had to be another explanation, her heart insisted. Her head though, started to have other ideas.
"You must be mistaken; my brother would never be involved in something like that."
"Girl, the man you described to me is the one that gave all the orders. The other three looked to him for everything. He sat over there," he pointed with a gnarled finger to a chair near the hearth. "Acting like the lord of the manor, while the other three ran around getting horses and supplies for a very long journey. He sat there with an evil grin, like he was Daimys himself," the innkeeper made the sign of the Triad, to ward off the evil.
Taura started when he mentioned Daimys. She could not believe this of her brother. If she believed this, she would have to believe he had indeed killed their parents. Taura would have to believe that he had given his soul to Daimys, the God of Darkness.
"Girl, I'm sorry," the innkeeper said, seeing her distress. He looked uncomfortable with her naked emotions.
"You said they left three days ago?" she managed.
"Could you tell me how to find the Horse master?" she asked softly.
With directions, Taura headed numbly out the door.
Heir Princess Ehlan sat looking out of the window, her mood pensive. As she watched the busy hustle of the street below, she heaved a sigh. Ehlan knew her mother's advisors had convinced her to send the Princess to this remote spot. They feared her. Coming into her twenty-fifth passing she could no longer be dismissed as a silly child. She had been raised and educated to take the Throne. It was her blood right. Lately grumbling could be heard. There were those who were unhappy with her mother, the Queen. Word had even come to her from factions within many powerful Tibor holdings, that their Lords would not be averse to supporting her if she decided to take the High Blood Throne from her mother.
The Queen's advisors knew of this. They knew the Queen was quickly losing her support from the lesser Tibors, the landowning class, as well as with the Royal Tibors. They were all in a mad scramble to protect themselves and keep the power in their hands. Ehlan had made no secret of the fact that she would bring in all new advisors once she ascended the Throne.
So now she sat, supposedly on a learning expedition, in the farthest reaches of her mother's realm. As she watched the street below her fingers absently stroked the hilt of the dagger at her waist. It was not purely ornamental. She had been rigorously trained since childhood in all forms of weapon and combat. How could she protect the realms if she did not know how to fight and lead an army? Ehlan, Heir Princess to the High Blood Throne, Protector of the Six Kingdoms, Lady of the Hyxa Sea, Anointed by the Light of the Triad, was one of a long line of Warrior Queens.
Even now, she was dressed for the practice field. High leather boots encased her long legs, ending at the knee. Two silver hilted daggers were hidden in those boots, tucked into specially made pockets. She wore gray, form-fitting breeches. Her fine linen shirt was open at the throat, revealing the firm swells of her breasts as she moved. A blue cloak, trimmed in silver lay carelessly over a chair. Propped next to her was a silver hilted, sheathed sword. The sword was etched with the symbols of her royal house. The wooden wardrobe closet was filled with clothes. Frilly silks in soft colors, but also with leather kilts and tight leather bodices, chest plates, leather greaves, all to protect the Heir Princess. Boots, tunics, breeches and trousers and cloaks took up even more room. Her state and ceremonial robes were with her personal servant. The crown and other trappings of her lineage were in a locked chest at the base of her large bed.
Ehlan sighed again. She wished she were back in Borcea, the capital city, the city of her birth. There was no other city like it in all the Six Kingdoms. Borcea was located on the coast. It was a busy port city, fishing boats coming and going, ships bringing people from other courts, other kingdoms. The imperial fleet was also based in Borcea. Beyond the city, huge mountain ranges rose up, another natural barrier. Her mother's castle stood high on a hill at the edge of the city. To get to it from the harbor you had to go through the entire city. A large wall encircled the city. Around the castle was also a wall, similar to the one that went around the city, complete with battlements.
Ehlan's blood always roared whenever she saw the standard of her realm flying over the Palace, a sea of blue with a silver sword circled by the High Crown. The colors of the standard had given rise to the selection of her own colors for her banner.
The High Blood Throne was the ruling Throne of the six major kingdoms, which made up the Alliance of Kingdoms. The Blood Throne settled the border disputes, passed the laws. The might of the Throne was called in during the long bloody Border War, between the other kingdoms and Niam. All other kingdoms swore fealty to the High Blood Throne and to the Queen that ruled from it. Never had a man sat on the Throne. It was passed down to the eldest child and in over three hundred years the line had delivered nothing but daughters first, in some cases, only daughters and in Ehlan's case, an only child.
The Throne had not always belonged to the women of her line. The story was that when the realms of man were young and brutal, one man had conquered all the other disorganized kingdoms and set himself up as supreme ruler. He was a brutal tyrant; executions were a familiar sight. Borun, the Bloody, allowed no dissension, raping and pillaging his own towns. His long suffering Queen plotted with the other kings to kill him. One day, after a feast in honor of his latest battle victory, the monarchs and his wife attacked Borun. Borun fell dying upon his black wooden throne; his blood is said to have stained the wood red. No amount of cleansing could wash his blood away. To this day the High Blood Throne remained a deep crimson red.
His Queen ascended the Throne and the other kings swore fealty to her. She divided the once mighty kingdom and gave them back their lands. The Accords of Borcea were written then. It was decided that in light of the terror that was Borun's reign, a man shall never sit upon the now named High Blood Throne. No man would be given such absolute power. Queen Borcea agreed to be the protector of the realm and her direct descendants still sat upon the Throne.
Another provision of the Accords was that the Queen could not marry. The father of the Heir would be the Bonded Companion. The Bonded Companion would be chosen when the Heir was young; usually it would be the second or third son of a nobleman or Tibor. The Heir and the man would be Bonded in a ceremony attended by all nobility, royalty and Tibors. The man would then be known as the Bonded Companion. He would be given a high commission in the Queen's Army. At the time of succession he would be made High General, and be made commander of all the Queen's forces.
For the most part the life of the Bonded Companion was his own. If the Queen did not take him as Chosen Companion, he was free to take a Chosen of his own. The only condition for either was that no child rise from any other union. If any did, than the child was to be put to death. Ehlan had never heard of that happening.
Ehlan's own Bonding Ceremony had been held the previous winter. She and Baran had grown up together and she loved him very much. His dark good looks complemented her own cool blond looks. Her green eyes always lit up with affection whenever she saw him. He made her laugh; he had made her cry as well as a child. He was the only one who knew her. Baran always tried to get her not to take herself so seriously. Just because she would be Queen, did not mean she could not have fun.
They had shared secrets as children and as they grew older they had shared kisses. Ehlan watched as Baran grew into his tall, broad shouldered, muscular frame. His blue-black hair was soft with a life of its own; Ehlan swore it glowed with a deep fire. He kept it cut short, snug to his head. A gleaming mustache curved over his full lips, showing off his white teeth. His olive skin gleamed with good health.
Baran had watched as Ehlan grew to her tall, lean shape, narrow, slim hips, and a full breast, much to the chagrin of her warrior's heart. Her soft, silver blond hair was kept cut to her shoulders. When working on her fighting skills she would tie it back, showing off a long, delicate neck, and firm jaw line. Her skin was tanned to a light brown, from many hours spent in the practice ring with Baran. Baran's laughing black eyes would sparkle every time he saw her.
Ehlan had toyed with the idea of taking him to her bed as her Chosen, but never gave it any real serious thought. They were friends, Baran being the only real friend she had ever had. His lineage was as ancient as hers, so he was not overly impressed with her nobility. Besides loving him as a friend, they had both been Touched by the Goddess. At the tender age of fifteen passings they confessed their love of their own sex to each other.
Ehlan missed Baran. She wished he could have been here with her, but he had had to stay. He was gradually taking over the High General's duties. Ehlan had been surprised that her mother's advisors had let him stay; after all he had sworn loyalty to the Heir. With another sigh, Ehlan moved away from the window. Thoughts of Baran soon turned to thoughts of Nemi and of Serina. Nemi was a red haired vixen that Ehlan had to leave behind. If she was honest with herself, she knew it was not the girl she missed, but the companionship. The Queen did not approve of Nemi's relationship with the Heir Princess. It was not that she was a woman, as the Queen was known to take a woman to her bed from time to time. No, it was the fact that Nemi was a commoner, a servant, albeit a lady's maid, but still a servant. Hardly a suitable companion for the Heir Princess. Ehlan knew that once she was back in Borcea she would need to do something about Nemi. The girl had visions of herself as the Chosen Companion of the Queen. Ehlan though, had no desire to have Nemi as Chosen. If she looked into her heart, she would not have been able to say that Nemi's status as a commoner had anything to do with that decision. As it was she did not have to think that deeply into it. She knew her feelings for Nemi were not love but lust. It was not Nemi she wanted. Serina, she pushed from her mind that was another situation she would have to deal with.
Princess Ehlan stood and began to pace the room like a caged animal. The sounds and smells of the city drifted to her from the open window. Finally, with a sound like a growl she picked up her sword and her cloak. Flinging open the door she walked out without looking at the two guards who silently left their post at her door to follow her.
* * *
Taura found the Horse master without much trouble. He, too, confirmed the story told by the innkeeper. Her heart sank as she listened to him tell of the coldly, arrogant man dressed all in black. Fighting back tears Taura decided to buy a horse. She knew she had no chance of catching up to Anel without one. After haggling with the Horse master for a fully outfitted horse, Taura left to find an inn for the night. With a promise to return at first light, she headed back onto the streets.
It did not take her long to pick a decent inn and settle in the large common room. Taura sat at a small table for two near the rear of the room, next to the large fireplace. A number of long wooden tables were full, with soldiers, men and women, merchants and townspeople just out for a spot of ale. Couples trying to talk intimately over the general raucous din occupied a few smaller tables. A game of dice was going on in a corner. Taura politely asked the serving girl for cider and a bowl of lamb stew.
Her meal had just arrived when the door to the inn slammed open. A tall, regal woman strode arrogantly into the suddenly quiet room. Her green eyes, framed by long dark lashes, quickly scanned the room. She wore a sword, almost unconsciously, it rode low on her hip, giving the impression she knew how to use it.
"Innkeep! Ale!" she called out in the silence of the room.
The innkeeper bowed his head and quickly set about filling a mug. The woman walked deeper into the room her eyes scanning over the gathered inhabitants, her eyes fell on Taura. Her boot heels striking the wooden floor were the only sound in the room. As she passed each table, Taura noticed the people bowing their heads, not lifting them till she passed. Taura frowned and looked back at the woman getting closer to her. Taura's breath caught in her throat as their eyes locked. The heat in the woman's eyes was unmistakable, but they were unreadable. Taura's gray eyes widened, but she was unable to look away.
"You are a long way from home," the woman asked, her voice soft, yet amused.
"Yes," Taura answered amazed that the self-possessed woman knew.
"Is anyone supping with you?" the woman asked, her voice soft, firm, strong and sure. It was the voice of a woman used to giving orders and having them obeyed.
"No," Taura managed.
The woman smiled, a lopsided grin stealing over her wide mouth. Taura's stomach did flips at the sight. The silvery blond woman pulled out the other chair and began to sit.
"But I don't believe I invited you to join me," Taura surprised herself.
She had not been raised to be rude, but there was something about the woman's air of ownership that bothered her. The woman, though, looked positively startled. Her eyes widened in surprise and she froze one hand on the chair.
"May I join you?" she asked, recovering her composure. "There doesn't seem to be anywhere else to sit."
"Yes, please do," Taura graciously agreed.
Just as the woman sat, the serving girl came over and placed a mug of frothing ale in front of her. The serving girl smiled and batted her lashes in a coquettish manner.
"Thank you. Bring me a bowl of that stew and more bread for myself and my friend," the blond ordered almost effortlessly.
Ehlan turned her eyes back toward the stunning auburn haired woman across the table. She barely noticed the crest fallen look on the face of the serving girl. The girl cast a baleful look at Taura and flounced off.
"Are you a Captain in the Queen's Army?" Taura asked when they were alone.
Her eyes flickered to the two guards who tried to be unobtrusive as they stood near them. The woman laughed softly. A thrill ran down Taura's spine.
"Yes," Ehlan answered amused.
Technically her rank was Captain. Taura looked around the suddenly deferential room. The patrons had all gone back to their own conversations, although a little softer now.
"My name is Ehlan," she told the other, purposely leaving off her family name. She watched Taura closely looking for a reaction.
"I'm Taura te'Muira."
"What a beautiful name," Ehlan murmured; she smiled as a slow blush began its way across Taura's face.
"I was named for my grandmother."
"Is she as beautiful as you?" the familiar phrases fell effortlessly from Ehlan's practiced tongue.
"I don't know, she died before I was born," came the tart answer.
"My apologies for being so crass," Ehlan lifted her mug and took a deep drink. She studied the other over the rim.
"No apology necessary," Taura took a drink of her cider, suddenly at a loss for words. The serving girl came back with a tray.
"Here you are, Your Hi…"
"Thank you," Ehlan interrupted smoothly and quickly.
The girl quickly placed the large bowl in front of Ehlan, the platter of bread and cheese between them. The two were silent as the girl refilled their drinks.
"Are you a Tibor?" asked Taura, thinking of the landowning class. She thought maybe the cool blond was a wealthy aristocrat. Ehlan laughed softly and the now familiar flop of Taura's stomach occurred again.
"Hardly," Ehlan answered truthfully.
"Then who are you?"
"I told you who I am," Ehlan countered smoothly a smile toying with her lips.
"Why do they treat you this way?"
"Who can say why anyone does anything," Ehlan shrugged elegantly enjoying the anonymity.
With a smile she drank from her mug again, letting the warmth spread through her. "So what brings you so far from the Plains?" she asked.
Taura lowered her spoon a frown marring her features.
"The Plains? I am from Demus," she answered, naming the northern village district.
Ehlan made a choking sound and hurriedly drank deeply again to hide her surprise.
"What brings you to Fadgon?" she was puzzled. What was a Tunonien doing living in a cold farming village?
"I'm looking for my brother."
"Is he lost?" the Heir Princess asked, flippant.
Taura managed a small smile at the joke.
"No," Taura frowned again.
It was quiet as the two slowly ate. Ehlan studied her companion silently. The girl intrigued the Princess. She was used to people fawning all over her. Taura had no idea, who she was, which was intriguing in itself. What Tunonien did not know a member of the Royal House? Taura treated her like a regular person it was refreshing.
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude," Taura finally said once her bowl was empty.
"It's all right," Ehlan told her. "Do you want to talk about it?" she was surprised by the sudden sadness that sprang into Taura's eyes.
"My parents are dead. I need to find my brother to tell him," Taura said softly, the words stinging.
"I am so sorry Taura," Ehlan's vibrant voice was full of sympathy.
She reached across and touched Taura's hand. A shock tingled up Ehlan's arm at the touch. She could tell by the small convulsive jerk of Taura's fingers, that she felt it too. At the sound of Ehlan's voice, Taura's tears began to fall in earnest. At Ehlan's gentle probing Taura told her of the events that had brought her here. As she talked Ehlan realized with a start that Taura may look like a Tunonien, and may even be a Tunonien, but she may very well not know it.
"You were very close with your family," Ehlan commented almost wistfully, once Taura had regained control.
"Very much so. Are you close to yours?"
"I am an only child. My mother," Ehlan paused, her eyes distant as she sipped her ale, "My mother is a very busy woman, so I did not see a lot of her growing up," Ehlan was surprised at the bitterness that invaded her voice.
"What about your father?"
"My father did spend time with me," Ehlan answered, thinking of the tall, quiet man who had begun her early military training. He had taught her everything from logistics to one on one combat. He had handpicked her tutors, both for learning and for weapon play. They now shared a quiet love built on mutual respect that even went beyond father and daughter, Heir Princess and High General.
"What does your mother do that takes up so much time?" was the innocent question.
Ehlan finished her ale before answering. She was not sure why she did not want Taura to know who she was. For some reason it felt very important to her, that Taura judge her as herself and not as Heir Princess.
"She runs a large holding," she skirted the truth. "Do you have any idea where your brother is headed? And why?"
Taura lowered her eyes from the penetrating green ones across from her. She had not told Ehlan of the suspicions against her brother Anel.
"He is headed west, but I am not really sure where he is going," she replied. "I am leaving in the morning to follow him, I am picking up my horse at the Horse master's Gorn's," Taura felt herself babbling, but she could not seem to stop the steady stream of words. For some reason the thought of leaving and never seeing Ehlan again caused a sharp pain in her chest.
"He is a good man, I am sure you got a fair price from him," Ehlan commented softly, trying to ignore the sudden feeling of loss at Taura's pronouncement of her plans.
"Yes, I did," Taura felt her answer was inadequate, but could not seem to form another.
Images of Ehlan lying next to her kept crowding into her vision, images of Ehlan kissing her, running her hands over Taura's body. Taura blushed and took a deep drink of her cider, draining the mug. Her eyes fell on the blond opposite her. She had never seen a woman more beautiful. She was not sure if it was a physical beauty or it was the glow that came from her inner self. Ehlan exuded confidence and strength. She seemed to know what she wanted and knew she had every right to have it. Taura could feel her body responding to the pull of the others presence.
Ehlan, for her part, was very intrigued by Taura. The auburn haired woman seemed self-possessed but there was an air of vulnerability about her, which was very appealing to Ehlan. The recent hurt was very evident in Taura's almond shaped eyes. Ehlan found herself trying to resist the urge to take the other in her arms and rock her gently. She wanted to take away the hurt. For the first time since entering womanhood, Ehlan's first thought was not to seduce.
The two sat in comfortable silence, listening to the sounds of conversation around them. Ehlan had never felt so peaceful in all her life, she could not think of another place she would rather be at that moment. Taura, she realized, must have felt the same, as she made no move to leave. She watched as Taura fought off the exhaustion that enveloped her.
"Well," Ehlan finally sighed. She was reluctant to go but unsure how to delay her departure. Frowning, she finally stood up. "I must take my leave. I wish you pleasant journey and may the Goddess guide you," she said the familiar benediction.
"May she guide you as well," answered Taura.
Ehlan hoped Taura would have asked her to stay. So it was with a deep frown that Ehlan strode from the inn. As she walked the now almost deserted streets, she let her perplexed thoughts go back to the woman she left in the inn. She felt almost sad, that she would never see Taura again.
"Ridiculous," she muttered to herself. "You have been too long without a woman," the guards ignored her mutterings. Ehlan was still mumbling and frowning when she walked into her private bedchamber.
It was the squeak of the floorboards that saved her. Without thought she moved to the side, just as a heavy blade fell through the air, right where she had been standing. Her sword almost jumped into her hands. Her assailant turned to face an angry Heir Princess and her sword. Grimly the plain faced man, dressed in black leather, struck out with his sword again.
Ehlan parried easily. From behind the door she heard shouts and the ring of steel on steel. The assailant pushed her back from the door, still pressing his advantage he kicked out with his foot, pushing the door closed. He slammed the bolt home, turning just in time to meet a stroke from Ehlan that would have removed him from his head.
The Heir Princess fought him almost effortlessly. She went on the defensive, as she had been taught, gauging her opponent's weaknesses. She was able to easily parry his sword. Ehlan started to grin, as an assassin he was not very good. He had counted on the element of surprise to win the encounter. His pressing attack became more frantic as the shouts and running feet could be heard getting louder.
Quickly, without warning, Ehlan changed her tactics, slipping beneath his sword, and her own sliding easily into his exposed flesh. His eyes widened in surprise. His sword fell lifelessly from his fingers.
"Who sent you?" Ehlan demanded angrily. The sounds of fighting outside were getting louder. "Who sent you?" the assassin slipped from her sword and fell to the floor, his hands clutching his wound. His mouth worked silently.
"The High Councilor…" his voice trailed off as he drew his last breath.
"Which one?" Ehlan shook the man, but he was dead. Gripping her sword she went to the door. Unbolting it she opened the door just wide enough to see into the hall. What she saw chilled her.
Bodies lay on a floor slippery with blood and gore, moans coming from the dying and the wounded. What chilled her most were the fighters. They were all members of her personal guard and members of the Queen's Army. As her stunned eyes took in the chaos, a familiar voice rang out.
"Kill her! A thousand gold crowns for the one who does!"
Ehlan's eyes flew to the speaker, Fikas, the captain of her personal guard. A sudden press began as those seeking to kill her pushed against those trying to protect her. Ehlan could not tell which was which. Quickly she slammed and bolted the door. Almost in a panic she looked for something to barricade it with. Her eyes fell on a large chest.
Her thoughts scattered after the door was barricaded; they fell on one, escape. Looking around she saw the window. Ehlan knew there was the slanted roof of the wood shed directly beneath her window. She went quickly to the chest at the foot of her bed and grabbed one of the pouches. Sheathing her sword, she went to the window. Ehlan had just slid it open when she heard the first pounding on the door behind her. Knowing she had bought herself a few moments, Ehlan dropped lightly to the roof below, then to the ground. Looking around to make sure she was not followed, the Heir Princess took off at a run.
Ehlan slowed down, her breathing was coming in ragged gasps. She had seen no sign of pursuit, but she was still careful to stay in the shadows. Pulling her cloak close, to hide the blood on her fine clothes, Ehlan leaned against a wall. The hood of her cloak covered her distinctive blond hair. With another fearful look behind her, Ehlan set out in search of a place to hide.
She knew she had to get out of town before dawn. Once it got light they would send out troops to sweep the city. Unfortunately she did not know which ones she could trust. Ehlan also knew that she would not get very far without a horse. As she walked, a plan began to form. Swiftly she made her way toward the inn where she had met Taura. Once there she had no idea which room Taura was in, so she threw stones at each, hiding from sight till Taura's head poked through on of the windows.
"Who's there?" demanded Taura.
"It's me," Ehlan whispered. "Don't shout I need your help."
"What do you want?" Ehlan looked around for a way to get into Taura's room.
Clinging to the wall next to her window was a vine-covered trellis. Silently praying to the Goddess that it would hold, Ehlan started up. Taura helped her through the window. After Ehlan was safely in the room Taura went and lit a small candle.
Ehlan's breath caught in her throat. Taura's thin nightshirt did little to hide her lush curves. Her hair was tousled and loose around her shoulders. Her eyes though, were wary.
"What's the matter?"
"The Queen's Army is trying to kill me," Ehlan blurted out.
Taura's eyes widened in alarm. Her eyes flew to the window.
"What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything! Definitely nothing I should be killed for. They sent an assassin to my room. There were men and women I have known all my life fighting each other," Ehlan fell into the small room's only chair, the events of the evening finally sinking in.
"Are you hurt?" Taura asked noticing the blood on Ehlan's shirt.
"No, it's his," Ehlan quickly assured her. "I need your help, can you help me?"
"I'll try," was the answer.
"I need to get out of town," Ehlan began.
She quickly told Taura of her plan. Ehlan was going to head out of the city on foot by the east road; she knew a way to sneak past the gate guards there. She was going to begin a false trail. Ehlan would then double back and meet Taura along the west road. Taura would go to the Horse master's and get her horse and another for Ehlan sneak out and meet Ehlan on the western road before dawn.
"Sneak out?" asked indignantly. "They won't just let me leave?"
"The gates are closed from sundown to sunup," Ehlan told her.
"Do you have coin for the horse?" Taura asked holding out her hand. Ehlan was surprised.
"Uh, yes," Taura extended her, palm up. Ehlan looked at her blankly.
"You did not expect me to pay for it did you?" Ehlan blinked, she had not really thought about it. She rarely carried coin. "You did, didn't you?" accused Taura disgustedly.
"No, not at all," Ehlan reached for her coin purse.
Pulling it open, she looked inside. She had very little use for coin. Most merchants refused to charge her. Inside the little leather purse were just five cold coins and seven silver coins and her royal signet ring.
"This is all I have." Taura looked at the coins in Ehlan's hand and shook her head.
"Taura, I really need your help," Ehlan pleaded, seeing the look in Taura's eyes. Taura looked at her long and hard before finally nodding.
"All right," she sighed.
"Thank you," Ehlan replied, relieved. "Now, after you get the horse go to the main street, the one that comes in from the gates. Behind the buildings on the right side of the street, there is a small alleyway. Follow it along and you will see a small door, on the other side is the forest outside the gates. You can double back through the forest and come out on the west road."
"Where will the door be?" Taura asked.
"Behind the house with the brown shudders, the name of the place is The Satin Room," Ehlan answered.
Taura thought for a moment before recognizing the house that the red haired woman had been leaning out of. Her eyes narrowed as she pinned Ehlan with her look. For some reason jealousy ran through her as she thought of how Ehlan knew of this place.
"What is the door for?" she asked. Ehlan's face reddened.
"Some people want to come and go from there without being seen," Ehlan told her, meeting her gaze. Taura said nothing. "I need to get started, will you be all right?"
"Yes of course. What about you?" asked Taura, surprised at the question.
"I will be fine," the two women looked at each other, both wanting to say more, but not really knowing what else to say.
With a nod, Ehlan made her way back out the window. Taura watched till the blond disappeared into the shadows.
Once Ehlan faded from sight, Taura quickly set about getting dressed. Just as quickly she repacked her few belongings. With a final look around the room, Taura turned and left. As she made her way down the silent streets she wondered why she had agreed to help Ehlan. She did not know the woman and it was taking time from her own mission. Taura sighed; she knew her father would be disappointed in her if she refused someone who asked for help. Muttering to herself she came to the Horse master's. Taking a quick look around, she ducked inside.
Taura's hands were trembling as she closed the barn door behind her. She quickly found the horse she had purchased, the gear neatly packed and waiting by the saddle. It took her only a few moments to saddle the chestnut mare. Once done, she listened to the night sounds around her. Everything was still silent. She went to another stall and lead out a large dun colored gelding. Her hands started to shake even harder as she fumbled with the buckles of a saddle. After a few false starts she managed to saddle the horse. Gathering the reins she poked her head out the door, her eyes scanned the empty yard. She slowly opened the door. Taura stopped before leading the horses out. She had not even left yet and guilt about stealing the horse was creeping in. Taura felt in one of the larger pouches and pulled out a large gleaming diamond. She knew that the stone was more than enough to pay for the horse and tack.
Looking around, Taura found an empty water bucket. She picked it up and placed it upside down in the dun's stall. Carefully she placed the diamond on top of the bucket. Satisfied she carefully made her way out of the barn. Taura waited to mount her own horse. Her eyes constantly scanned the night around her. She was just waiting for an armed guard to come screaming out of the shadows to arrest her.
Taura stopped in the shadows of a building looking around for any guards. Not seeing any, she dismounted and led the two horses behind the building, into the narrow alleyway that ran along all the buildings. Taura carefully picked her way through the piled up garbage and refuse. One horse snorted his displeasure at the smell. It was slow going as there was barely enough room for the two horses. She was not sure how long she had been walking when she saw it.
Taura had started to go past it, till she realized what it was. The doorway was built into the wall. Vines covered it to make it blend in with the rest of the wall. Taura looked up and smiled; she could make out the dishwater colored shutters.
She was right; it was the house where the prostitute had propositioned her as she came through that day. Now all the rooms were dark, either business was done for the night or they were still involved, either way Taura sent a silent prayer of thanks to the Goddess. Taura searched the door and quickly found the latch. The door swung open easily, on well-oiled hinges. Taura sent another prayer of thanks. The door was only wide enough for one horse at a time. She led one through, then the other. Once outside, Taura breathed a huge sigh of relief. Now all she had to do was get to the West road by way of the dark forest. Undaunted, Taura set out.
It was after dawn before Taura saw Ehlan again. She had been riding along slowly, her eyes scanning the trees on either side of the road. A soft whistle drew her attention. Smiling, Ehlan stepped out from behind a tree. Taura stopped and lead the horses off the road.
"Did you have any trouble?" Ehlan asked, easily mounting the dun gelding.
"Not at all. You?" Taura countered, her mind skirting the fear she had felt sneaking out of the town.
"None," despite herself, Ehlan grinned broadly, a sense of adventure stealing over her. Nodding, Taura gathered her reins.
"Well, good luck then," she pointed her horse back toward the road.
"Wait! You are just going to go on?" Ehlan's voice was incredulous.
"Well, yes," Taura blinked surprised. She had agreed to help Ehlan get out of town and she had filled her part of the bargain.
"I still need your help," Ehlan blurted out. She did not know why, but she knew that she did not want to be parted again from this woman.
"I'm sorry, Ehlan, but I need to find my brother."
"Wait, listen, it's not a good idea for either of us to be traveling alone. It is not safe. I'll help you, if you will help me," Taura looked at her, a slight frown on her face. "Please, it is important, I really need your help," pleaded the Heir Princess. She had never asked for anything before and she was not sure she liked the feeling. Taura sighed heavily; she just could not seem to get away from this woman.
"All right," she finally agreed with a sigh. Ehlan smiled broadly. Still frowning, Taura lead the way back onto the road.
* * *
"I'm sure we could make it to the next town," Ehlan said after Taura stated her intention to stop for the night. They had ridden hard for the day, stopping only to rest the horses.
"I'm sure we could," was the simple answer. Taura dismounted and lead her horse off the road. There was a small stream some distance from the road; she decided it would be a good place to make camp.
"So why don't we continue?" Ehlan followed.
"Because, staying in town requires money, which you do not have," Taura pointed out bluntly.
Ehlan was silent; she definitely was not used to the fact or to the tone. She was about to say that she would not need money once they found out who she was, but Ehlan had no way of knowing who was on her side.
"We need to get information about your brother," she tried. Taura faltered a step before continuing.
"We can get it just as well in the morning," Ehlan sighed softly resigning herself to the fact that they would be camping out.
Taura picked a spot near the stream, a small clearing surrounded by trees. Looking around she was satisfied; no one could get close without being heard.
"I think we should picket the horses," she told the blond who was watching Taura unsaddle her horse.
"Okay," Ehlan agreed. She stretched broadly, easing the ache in her muscles. "I'm exhausted," she commented. Taura threw her a sidelong look as Ehlan began to walk around the small clearing.
"Aren't you going to picket your horse?" Taura asked putting her leather saddle down. Ehlan turned from her inspection of the creek.
"Pardon?" she was not sure if she had heard right.
"I said, aren't you going to picket your horse?" repeated Taura. Ehlan blushed, surprised, her mouth opened and then shut no sound escaping.
"Uh, yes, I am," she strode over to her horse. "How hard can this be?" she asked herself.
A frown formed as Ehlan studied the many straps and buckles of the saddle and the reins. She was unaware that Taura was watching her intently.
"Oh here," Taura said finally, exasperated.
She moved over and began to loosen various buckles and straps. Ehlan watched closely. After watering the horses, Taura showed her how to picket the horse. Tying it so it had plenty of room to move around and graze.
"Now, you go find some firewood," Taura told Ehlan after the horses were settled. Ehlan looked at her, Taura matched her with a no nonsense look of her own.
"What are you going to do?" Ehlan asked as Taura moved away.
"I am going to find dinner."
It was some time later when Ehlan returned with an armful of wood. Taura was already there. She was sitting on her haunches, effortlessly skinning a rabbit.
"Where do want this?" Ehlan asked. Faced with this suddenly competent woman, the Heir Princess was actually feeling unsure about herself.
"Over there," Taura indicated with her head, a small area that had been cleared of all debris. A circle made of stone was ready for the firewood. "I'll start the fire in a minute," she told Ehlan, who was obviously puzzling out how she was going to start the fire. "Why don't you take the water skins and fill them up."
"All right." Ehlan looked around for the skins. Smiling, Taura shook her head as Ehlan made her way to the stream.
"Taura, did you learn all this living on your farm?" Ehlan asked later as she watched Taura roast the rabbit.
"Yes, many was a day that I would spend on the mountain with just the sheep for company," her tone was defensive. She beckoned for Ehlan's knife. Silently she cut a piece of meat off, speared it with Ehlan's knife and handed it back to her. Ehlan took the knife from Taura gratefully.
"I was just asking."
"Sorry, it's just that sometimes the villagers would tease Anel and me about being sheepherders. My mother," she swallowed painfully, "used to say that there was no shame in doing honest work. She said someone had to do it, so why not us."
"Wise woman, your mother," Ehlan chewed the warm meat slowly.
"Very wise," Taura sighed heavily. "I miss them so much," her voice broke painfully, and then tears began to fall.
"Taura," Ehlan cried out. She dropped her knife. Rushing to the sobbing girl, she quickly gathered her close. "Shh, now," she whispered, gently rocking the other. Taura clung tightly to Ehlan.
As she held the sobbing woman, Ehlan's heart softened then hardened. She had never seen someone so hurt. A feeling of protectiveness swelled up in her breast. Ehlan vowed to herself to make whoever had done this, pay. If she had to use all her power as Heir Princess or if she had to use her sword, one way or another, they would pay.
"I'm sorry," Taura said softly. Her tears had subsided, but she made no move to leave Ehlan's embrace. Her eyes were on the fire as it burned softly.
"Not a problem, are you okay now?" asked Ehlan. Taura sighed and pulled away. Ehlan felt a sudden sense of loss.
"Yes, I'm fine," she smiled faintly, her eyes still on the fire, her thoughts on her parents.
"Well, if you are sure," Ehlan was uncertain.
She stood and went back to her previous seat. Ehlan saw her knife, with the ruined piece of meat, on the ground. Wordlessly she threw the meat into the fire, listening to it sizzle and pop. Taura took the knife from her and, also wordlessly, cut and speared another portion.
Later, her head propped on her saddle, using it as a pillow, Ehlan listened to Taura's soft breathing. The auburn haired woman lay across from her, wrapped in her cloak, her back to Ehlan. The Heir Princess, for all her exhaustion, was finding it hard to fall asleep. Her body was still very aware of the feel of Taura's pressed against her. Ehlan's flesh burned where Taura's breast had been nestled against her. Ehlan could not understand her hesitancy. She knew she was attracted to Taura and it had been sometime since she had been with a woman. But some sudden sense of nobility kept her from seducing Taura, some sense of Taura's vulnerability perhaps. Or maybe, that wall that Taura had erected was too high. Whatever the reasons, Ehlan was slightly surprised at her own actions. With a sigh, she rolled over, wrapped the blanket close around her and forced herself to sleep.
Ehlan groaned loudly the next morning, coming awake to agonizing pain. Taura turned from the fire she was stoking.
"Are you all right?" she asked concerned.
"I don't think I can move," Ehlan ground out; her face was contorted in pain.
"What is the matter?" Taura rushed to Ehlan's side, concern evident on her face.
"I don't know, every muscle in my body is stiff," Taura suppressed a low laugh.
"Silly, you were supposed to put the blanket on the ground and cover up with your cloak. It is not good for you to sleep on the cold ground."
"It's easy for you to laugh," with another loud groan Ehlan sat up. She began twisting her torso in hopes of working some of the knots out. Taura went back to the fire, where she was boiling some water for tea. Thanking the Goddess for her foresight in supplying herself so fully.
"In your capacity as a Captain in the Queen's Army didn't you ever have to camp out?" Taura asked a slight humorous edge in her voice. Ehlan looked at her narrowly from her stooped over position.
"Yes, but it was in a tent, with a cot," she answered, hopefully she thought, in a regally superior voice. Taura's laughter stopped her as she tried to straighten up. Her hands stole to the small of her back. "What's so funny?" she demanded.
"If you could hear how pompous that sounded. Who do you think you are? The Heir Princess?" giggled Taura. Ehlan was too entranced by the sound of Taura's laugh to reply. Grimacing a smile, Ehlan stood up completely. She could almost hear her muscles protesting. "I'm assuming that the soldiers slept on the ground," Taura commented softly, her laughter silent.
"I suppose," Ehlan answered, her attention on trying to get her boots on without bending over. She missed the look that Taura threw at her.
"Are you a good Captain?" Taura's voice was deceptively quiet. Ehlan balanced on one foot, her concentration on her task, missing the tone.
"But you don't know or care if your common soldier sleeps on the ground?" Ehlan, over balanced, started to fall over. Catching herself she looked up.
"What are you talking about?" she asked puzzled.
"I am talking about you," Taura shouted, angrily.
All those years of being the brunt of the villager's jokes finally broke through at Ehlan's cavalier attitude. Her off hand comments, coupled with her obvious expectation that Taura serve her, just ignited the normally levelheaded woman.
"You, with all your airs and arrogant superiority! You aren't any different than those soldiers you dismiss so casually! You are no better, no matter what you think!" Ehlan was stunned into silence for a moment. No one had ever raised their voice at her before.
"And you are no better than I am!" Ehlan shot back, angry as well. She strode over to confront Taura. "You are one to talk. You put on airs, thinking you are so much better because you know how to picket horses, catch rabbits and sleep on the ground," Ehlan's hands waved wildly. "You're doing the same thing to me that those stupid villagers did to you!"
"What?" Taura was incredulous.
"Yes, because we're different and I can't do the same things as you don't make you better, it just makes us different."
"No one is better than anyone else," Taura insisted stubbornly, trying to hold onto her anger.
"You are right," Ehlan agreed quietly, surprised, being raised in the class system that thought was a new one for her. "And you'd do well to remember that as well." Without another word the Heir Princess strode off toward the stream, leaving Taura frowning.
The two were silent as they saddled their horses. Ehlan struggled along; she had never saddled a horse before. Despite years of riding, a groom had always done it for her. For the first time Ehlan regretted her life of privilege. She also vowed her child would do for herself. Ehlan did not like this helpless feeling.
"Here, you should put this on," Taura's voice broke the silence. She was holding a plain gray tunic. "Your shirt has blood all over it," she pointed out.
Ehlan looked down at the fine silk shirt and sighed. She took the tunic from Taura and quickly changed.
The tunic was large on her. The sleeves were full and fell below her wrists; she had to keep pushing them up. The open neck would fall and reveal a wide expanse of smooth shoulder. Taura's breath caught as Ehlan bent over to pick up her blanket. The shirt was loose and it revealed to her eyes the creamy swells of Ehlan's breast. She quickly averted her eyes and turned away. Still silent the two struck camp and headed out in the early morning light.
The village of Valta was small. It was very dirty and the people walked around with furtive looks and their hands close to their weapons. Taura and Ehlan rode close together, keeping a close look out. They asked for and received directions to the only tavern.
The tavern's common room was dark and dank; a rotting smell permeated the room. The rough-hewn tables were dirty and a few sullen patrons sat around, drinking from stone mugs. The tavern keeper was behind a rough counter drinking deep from a large tankard. His narrow eyes studied them as they made their way toward an empty table. He wiped his mouth free of foam and wiped it off on his dirty, stained apron. Not taking his eyes off the two women, he scratched his head, barely moving his lank dark hair.
A slovenly, hard-eyed woman, in a low cut serving gown came over to their table. She stood, waiting, looking down at them. One of her eyes had a yellowing bruise under it.
"Do you have cider?" Taura asked finally.
"Wine and ale," was the abrupt answer.
"Two cups of wine," Ehlan ordered her voice quiet. "I don't think we want to eat here," Ehlan said after the serving girl had left.
"True, I don't think I've ever seen so much such dirt before," Taura shuddered remembering the filth and waste that lay piled up outside. The lean, hungry looks on the ragged citizens, still in her eyes. If this was the way the outside world looked, Taura decided she would be very happy to go back to Demus and her farm.
"This is the District of the High Councilor Maybor. Apparently he taxes them heavily," Ehlan's voice was hard.
She would have to look closely at the policy of allowing the High Council to set their own taxes. The serving girl came back and placed two dented cups in front of them, spilling some of the contents.
"Four silvers, a piece," she said, flatly.
"Four?" Taura was incredulous. The woman narrowed her eyes.
"I can take 'em back."
"For that price we could have two whole bottles, and then some," Taura muttered.
"Like I said, I can take 'em back."
"That won't be necessary, here," Ehlan handed the woman a gold crown from her purse. "There is another for you if you can give us some information," the woman's eyes narrowed again. She cast a quick look over her shoulder at the tavern keeper.
"We're looking for four men, they would have been through here a few days ago," Taura quickly described her brother and his friends. The woman's eyes went flat.
"I seen 'em, right bastards they were too," she snarled. "The first one you described, I've never met a colder man in all my life. Gave me this, he did," she said touching the yellowing bruise. Taura blinked in surprise. "His eyes were dead, it was like he'd a soon kill ya as look at ya. Gave me the jeepers, he did."
"Are you sure?" Taura still dared to hope.
"As sure as I'm standing here," the woman was adamant.
"Did they happen to say where they were going?" Ehlan asked quickly, one eye on Taura.
The woman looked around again. No one was paying attention to them. The tavern keeper had gone back to his tankard.
"I overheard them talking, they were going to a place called Adach. They were planning how long it would take them to get there. The cold one, said they had to be in Borcea by the Queen's Name Day celebration," Ehlan frowned deeply. She did not notice the woman leave, going to refill a mug or two.
Ehlan's mind was in a whirl over the information. Adach was the Temple City of Niam, the kingdom on the western border of Tunon. The endless Plains of Tunon bordered Niam except for a small portion that bordered Ehlan's country of Tinesse and Lyssia, one of the Six Kingdoms. The kingdom of Niam was a closed secretive country. People from other countries were strongly discouraged from entering, very few had actually been allowed across their borders. The small amount of trade was handled at small border towns that paid little attention to the working of the realms.
Their people were fierce warriors. But what made her uneasy was that Niam was a very religious, secular society. They worshipped one God, and that God was Daimys, the Soul Stealer. Unconsciously, Ehlan made the sign of the Triad to ward off any evil the thought of Daimys may have brought.
"Are you sure of the name of the city they were going to?" Ehlan asked when the serving woman returned. Taura watched Ehlan closely.
"Yes, they said it a few times, and one of them had been there and he talked the most about it. The whole thing gave me the jeepers, I tell you. The whole time they were here, I felt as if I was being watched," she shuddered and made the sign of the Triad.
"Thank you, you've been most helpful," Ehlan handed the woman one of the last gold crowns in her pouch. The woman clutched the coin tight.
"My thanks to you," she whispered. She started to walk away; Ehlan's voice stopped her.
"One more thing," she paused. "My friend and I have been traveling, is there any news?" Ehlan asked, casually. The woman thought for a moment.
"Well, there was a rider here. He was on his way to Borcea. He says that the Heir Princess has disappeared. Says she is raising an army to overthrow the Queen," Ehlan's face went visibly pale. "They say she killed half the garrison back in Fadgon."
Taura started and looked between the woman and Ehlan, a thought beginning to form in her mind. Ehlan was biting her lip, her eyes on the table in front of her.
"The rider also said that the Queen is with child," with that the serving woman left. Ehlan was stunned, her mind whirling with the implications.
"We need to go. We need to get to Borcea," Ehlan finally said.
"Borcea? No, they went to Adach," Taura protested. "You said you would help me."
"And I am, but you can't go to Adach, no one can. We can find him when he gets to Borcea," Ehlan's voice was insistent, her eyes blazing.
"But the Queen's Naming Ceremony isn't for two months!"
"Why can't we go to Adach? Anel is," Taura was puzzled. Ehlan looked at her sharply. Quickly she explained. Taura's face drained of all color; she slumped back in her chair, an air of defeat hung about her.
"So, it's true then," she whispered.
"What?" Ehlan demanded. "Why is Anel going to Niam? Damn it all, Taura what haven't you told me?" Ehlan's voice was hard, her heart heavy with fear. With a sigh, Taura told the Heir Princess the suspicions about her brother Anel.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Ehlan asked softly.
"Because, I didn't want it to be true," Taura admitted painfully.
"Come on, we have a long way to go," silently Taura followed the taller woman.
Anel te'Muira sat at the table slowly sipping his chilled wine. His flat gray eyes traveled the room every so often. The other patrons in the tavern obviously avoided looking in the direction of the four men who sat at a table in the back of the common room. Anel was amused. The other three talked among themselves; discussing how far they had come in the last few days and how much farther they needed to go.
"She is coming," Anel finally said, his voice soft. His lip curled in a sardonic half smile. "I can feel her."
"Taura?" asked Creg.
"Yes, we have to slow down; we have to let her catch up."
"Is that wise?" Daut questioned. He paled as Anel turned his cold dead gaze on him. It was silent as Anel pinned him with his gaze; finally Daut was able to lower his eyes.
"The Great Lord came to me and told me we must bring Taura to Him," Anel told them. The other men looked at him, rapt attention on their faces. "Taura is important to His plans for the world," Anel's voice swelled with pride, his eyes held a far off look. "We will be exalted before all others if we bring her to him.
"My destiny to stand as Overlord of the Realms, Guardian of the Faith, is assured me. The Great Lord is ready to escape His prison and face His siblings, the False Gods. Once that comes to pass the four of us will rule the realms of Man," his voice was filled with passion, his eyes seeing them standing triumphantly as the monarchs bowed before them. The others nodded their heads, agreeing with him, their eyes watching his every move.
"The Great Lord is pleased with us, my friends. He has used our offerings to strengthen Himself. He does not want us to lose sight of our goals and to continue to provide Him with fresh souls." Anel turned his cold gaze back to the others. A smile slid over his mouth, a cold, evil smile that was returned by the three other men. Still smiling Anel beckoned the serving girl to come to their table. They broke out in laughter as she approached.
Ehlan and Taura were silent as they rode out of the village. Once clear of the dirty little village, they spurred their horses into a mile eating gallop. After awhile they slowed the animals to a walk.
"Our best bet is to go straight to Borcea; it will take us some time to get there. Once there we can make plans about confronting Anel," Ehlan told the silent woman at her side. Her mind was still on the news that the serving woman had imparted about her mother. The signs of the Prophesy swirling around her, Ehlan began to feel overwhelmed.
"I am going to Adach," Taura finally said, lifting her chin defiantly.
"Are you crazy? Adach is in Niam, they do not allow followers of the Triad to enter their lands. If you try, they will kill you. They will use you as a sacrifice to their God. You know where Anel will be in two months time," Ehlan pointed out a frown marring her features.
"This can't be true," whispered Taura, pain evident in her eyes. "He can't have gone over." Ehlan reined in her horse and forced Taura to look at her.
"I know it is hard to believe this of your brother, but you will not be able to help him if you get your heart cut out," Ehlan told her bluntly.
"I know you're right, my head knows. My heart does not," tears formed in Taura's eyes.
Suddenly she lifted her head. "If he did this, I will kill him," she vowed softly, her eyes blazing.
Ehlan knew she would never allow Taura to take her own brother's life. She could not allow Taura to live with that guilt. Ehlan would kill him herself before she let that happen.
"For right now, we are traveling in the same direction," Ehlan began. "We don't need to make a decision about which way to go just yet. Maybe we can still catch him," she suggested.
Ehlan did not want Taura to leave her; she couldn't answer why she wanted to keep Taura with her. Taura's face lit up and Ehlan caught her breath. The Heir Princess knew she was feeding Taura's fantasy about her brother's innocence, but she was helpless against the look on Taura's face.
"Thank you," Taura said simply.
Neither questioned why they did not suggest that they go their separate ways. They both felt the magnetic pull and the desire to be near each other, yet both were at a loss as to how to voice those desires.
"We need to get going then," Ehlan finally said, tearing her eyes from Taura's.
"Right," Taura agreed softly. She gathered her reins and they set out again.
As they rode, Taura directed her thoughts inward. She knew she was holding onto family loyalty. In light of everything she had learned since searching for Anel, Taura knew she should not hold onto the belief of his innocence. It was hard. She had grown up with Anel. As children they had played together. As they grew older they shared secrets, fears and desires. Anel was the first person she had told of the Goddess' Touch. He had been very happy and supportive. Anel had stated that he himself felt no such desire.
Taura knew her brother was not happy with being a farmer. He always talked of adventure, of fortune. Anel had shared his daydreams with his sister. As children they would re-enact great battles of the past. Anel would always emerge victorious. Taura, too, had visions and dreams other than being a farmer. She also knew that eventually she would settle down. Not for her the constant adventures. Taura had planned to do like her father, see the world then settle down and raise a family. Taura knew the difference between her daydreams and her reality. She had always wondered if Anel had. Anel had never been satisfied.
Was it his dissatisfaction that led him to sell his soul to Daimys? The surest way to get Anel's attention was to tell him it was forbidden. Surely, she thought, he would not have taken that to the extreme? Taura wanted to believe that her brother, her flesh and blood, would not have given himself to the Soul Stealer. Taura shuddered at the thought. If so, Anel was doomed to eternal damnation; his soul would writhe in agony till the end of time. No, she refused to believe her brother would willingly do that to himself. Taura could not afford to believe it. She was not prepared to believe that. Not until she saw him face to face.
Darkness was fast approaching when the two women stopped for the night. Once again they went some ways off the traveled road, staying near a stream. They worked quickly and efficiently, Ehlan having learned from the previous evening. After another meal of rabbit, the two sat in compatible silence.
"Did you miss not growing up with siblings?" Taura asked softly.
"No," Ehlan answered truthfully, her eyes on the fire, not on the woman opposite her. "I think there may have been too much rivalry. There was only a need for one child."
"Were you lonely?" Ehlan sighed at the question. Her hands were busy, pulling strips of bark off a small branch, feeding it to the fire.
"Lonely? Yes," her tone was melancholy. "Until Baran came."
"Baran?" asked Taura, feeling a twinge of jealousy. "Who is he?"
"My Companion," Ehlan answered. Still looking at the fire, she missed the stricken look on Taura's face.
"Do you miss him?"
"Very much. It almost seems as if my arm is missing."
"Tell me about him," Taura requested softly. She was hoping that if Ehlan talked of her Companion, it would stop the feelings that were starting to bloom.
"Baran is the best of men. He is strong, brave, handsome and loyal. He teases me and makes me laugh," Ehlan's lips twitched in a smile as she thought of her Bonded Companion. "When we were given the Goddess' Touch, he insisted that I was chosen by default because I would never find so handsome a man as himself. Since he was given the Touch, the Goddess spared me a loveless future by also giving me her Touch," Ehlan chuckled softly, fondly remembering her Bonded.
"I believed him and was terribly upset. I remember running to my mother in tears," Ehlan's grin broadened. "Baran was scolded for the better part of the day. After, he was confined to the garden or to his rooms for a full week. I would ride my horse under his window every hour. Just to let him know what he was missing."
"You were both Touched?" Taura asked confused.
"Yes the same year," Ehlan's voice was filled with pride. Thinking of the dream where the Goddess appeared to her, giving her love to share with other women, always made her smile.
"Then why is he your Chosen?"
"It is my destiny and duty to bear a child," Ehlan answered, looking at Taura intently.
"He is my Bonded Companion, not my Chosen Companion," she explained softly.
Taura was silent; the ways of the nobility were strange to her. Ehlan's explanation only furthered Taura's belief that Ehlan was a member of the aristocracy. Her suspicions from the tavern came to the forefront again.
"Do you do everything out of duty?" Taura asked her voice low. Taura could not lower her eyes from Ehlan's.
"Most everything," Ehlan sighed, looking back at the fire. Her thoughts flew back to the news given by the serving girl in the tavern. She knew the time had come to tell Taura who she was. Ehlan raised her eyes and took a deep breath.
Taura's eyes were on her. Ehlan found herself unable to speak, as they looked deep into each other's eyes. Ehlan's lips ached to taste the sweetness she knew would be Taura. Her hands trembled as a heat suffused her body. Ehlan could almost feel Taura's hands on her. The fire popped just then, snapping their gaze.
"I think we should turn in," Taura said, her voice rough. Ehlan, not trusting herself to speak nodded. Silently the two women bedded down for the night, the mood broken.
Ehlan was not sure what woke her, a sound or just a change in the air. Her eyes snapped open. The fire had burned low a few embers glowed. She could hear the horses stamping and snorting nervously. Her ears picked up the sound of a twig breaking. Carefully, she slowly eased her hand down to her side. Her fingers gripped the hilt of her sword. Ehlan could hear Taura's even breathing across the fire from her. Another twig snapped. Whoever was out there was being very careless.
"Almost as careless as us, for not setting guard," Ehlan thought to herself. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a shadowed figure move out of the trees to stand over Taura. Ehlan tensed, steeling herself to jump up.
Suddenly without warning, Taura was on her feet, her staff moving with blinding speed. The figure was on the ground almost before Ehlan was on her feet.
"Behind!" Taura shouted and Ehlan ducked. A sword and arm whizzed by her head. Her attacker recovered quickly. His lightning swift strokes beat her back at first. Ehlan could hear Taura engaged again.
Her attacker snarled, angry that he had not been able to get beyond her defenses. His anger gave Ehlan an opening. She parried a thrust and slipped her sword under his arm, slicing easily through his flesh. His eyes widened, a gurgle escaped his lips and he slid off her sword, falling to the ground. Ehlan turned just as Taura's second attacker fell.
"Who are they?" Taura gasped.
"I don't know," Ehlan bent and pulled aside the dead man's cloak.
His leather jerkin showed no sign of livery or colors. A quick search of two of them revealed no personal items, no coin purses, rings or amulets. None wore a sash of rank. As she searched the third man Ehlan's fingers felt something under his leather jerkin. Tentatively she pulled out an amulet by its leather thong. With a surprised hiss she fell back, her eyes staring at the amulet around the dead man's neck. Taura moved closer to look, stopping when Ehlan grabbed her hand. Taura looked down at the stunned woman on the ground a frown on her own eyes.
"What's the matter?" Taura asked looking between Ehlan and the ugly angry looking amulet. It was of an animal, with red eyes but was unlike any animal she had ever seen.
"What is that?"
"It's a tel'nath, " Ehlan whispered her voice tight with fear. "It is worn by the priests of Daimys," Taura gasped, her face paling at the thought. Why would a priest of Daimys attack them?
"By the Goddess. Ehlan why would they attack us? Why are they here?" Taura questioned her own voice tight.
"I have absolutely no idea, but I suggest we get out of here," Ehlan said standing up and looking around the now silent woods. Taura agreed and they quickly struck camp.
"Nice staff work Taura. It has been a while since I saw some of those Tunonien moves," Ehlan commented later after they had slowed down watching her intently for her reaction.
"Tunonien? No, my father taught me," Taura told her.
Ehlan looked at her thoughtfully. Even after using moves only used by the warriors of Tunon, Taura pretended she was not Tunonien. Maybe she was a spy for the Tunonien, Ehlan thought, or her eyes widened; maybe Taura didn't know she was a Tunonien. Ehlan didn't want to think of the implications of that. She knew the kingdoms were not ready for the Prophesy to manifest itself in the slight young woman riding next to her.
"Where did he learn?" Ehlan asked, trying to act casual.
"I never asked, why?"
"It was very effective. I had no idea that shepherding was so dangerous," teased Ehlan, side stepping Taura's question.
"Sometimes it is. Especially during breeding season," laughed Taura. Ehlan joined in, pushing her suspicions away.
"It's cold," Ehlan mumbled a while later.
She pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders. Her hands, gloveless, were exposed to the chilly night air. Ehlan would hold one, then the other close to her body for warmth.
"Winter is coming early," Ehlan said softly, almost to herself, hoping by saying it she could make it not be true, in a vain hope of holding back the Prophesy.
"That's not good," Taura answered.
"For many reasons," was the grim reply.
"How long will it take to get to the Border?" asked Taura.
"About three weeks of hard riding," Ehlan told her. "From there, it will be another three to four weeks to Borcea, if the weather holds."
Taura was silent, imagining the distances involved. Every mile was taking her farther and farther from her home.
"I had no idea that the world was so big," her voice was soft, reflective.
"Taura, the world is bigger than you can imagine. Places so beautiful they will take your breath away. I would like to show them to you," Ehlan's voice was intense, sincere.
Taura stopped her horse suddenly. Ehlan stopped a few feet away. She turned her mount around so she could look at Taura.
Taura's eyes were wide with wonder, almost glowing as she looked at the other. A smile slid slowly over her lips. Ehlan found herself responding, her heart soaring with light and laughter. She had never felt so free.
"I'd like that," Taura finally said.
Grinning Ehlan nodded. The look deepened; almost without thought Ehlan guided her horse closer to Taura. Their knees touching as their horses pressed against each other. Taura felt the breath catch in her throat as Ehlan moved closer still. The night was silent. The only noise their breath and the snort of their horses. Ehlan felt herself smile as she bent and lightly touched her lips to Taura's. Gently the kiss deepened, Ehlan's lips moving over Taura's silky smooth lips, her tongue darting to meet Taura's shy tongue. With almost a groan Ehlan pressed closer, drinking deeply of Taura's sweetness. The seemingly endless kiss broke apart, each woman was breathing raggedly. Ehlan's heart raced with desire. Her eyes looked deep into Taura's and saw the matching fire in the gray depths. As they stared into each other's souls, questions were asked and answered without words being spoken. A lifetime passed between them and in that instant each knew without a doubt that their lives were forever changed and bonded. Their lips came together again in a crushing kiss, their desire for each raging forth.
A sound broke them apart, a shout from down the road. Both women turned and looked back the way they had come. A group of four riders were pushing their horses hard to reach them. The men in front had their swords out. Ehlan pulled her horse away from Taura's and pulled her sword free. Taura followed suit.
"Taura, watch yourself, at the first break, make a run for it," Ehlan told her, not looking at the woman behind her.
"Take your own advice," Taura answered her voice tight as she watched the horsemen approach.
The horsemen smashed into them with swords swinging and steel clashing. Taura found herself hard pressed to fight off her attacker. Her father had never taught her how to fight on horseback. She let her instincts take over. Taura finally let the reins fall, concentrating only on her sword as she countered the attack. The man's face was blank, his eyes hard as he swung his huge sword, grinding away at Taura's defenses. Taura felt her arm grow heavy; she could feel the larger man gaining the advantage. Suddenly the amulet around her neck began to grow warm, a tingle filling her chest, moving to her arm, toward her fingers, to burst out over the sword. Taura gasped as her sword started to glow with a pulsating white light. The man she was fighting was startled, his blade faltered and with a will of its own, Taura's sword slipped in and ran through his chest. With disbelief in his eyes, he slowly fell off his horse.
Without moving Taura turned to the second man who had come to attack her. The sword raised and pointed at the man. A bolt of light shot from the end and slammed into her attacker's chest. With a cry he fell off the back of his horse, he lay where he fell, not moving. Taura looked at her sword in wonder. The amulet was still hot and vibrating against her chest. She turned her attention to the two men who where attacking Ehlan. Angrily, Taura raised her sword and pointed again. Another bolt of light shot out and hit one man in the back, he slumped over in his saddle, his sword falling from his hand. Taura grabbed for the saddle horn, suddenly feeling dizzy.
The fourth man did not look back; he was intent on his battle with Ehlan. The Heir Princess had the advantage; her mouth was split in a grim smile as her sword blurred through the air. Taura saw her face was pale; she could also make out a dark glistening wet spot on Ehlan's side. With grim determination Ehlan dispatched her attacker, watching as he fell from his horse.
"We need to get out of here," Ehlan said tightly, her eyes on the fallen men. "There may be more of them." Without waiting for a reply she turned her horse moving off down the road, Taura followed her. Taura pushed the disturbing thoughts of her glowing sword aside as she pushed her horse into a gallop.
It was almost dawn before they stopped. Ehlan pulled her steaming horse up and slumped over in the saddle. Taura stopped her own horse a few feet ahead. With a cry she urged her mount back to Ehlan. The blond was ashen faced and she pressed a hand to her side. Taura gasped as she saw the blood. She took the reins from Ehlan and led the horse off the road. Taura led them deeper into the woods till she found a stream. She followed the stream for a while until they were some ways away from the road and the place where they entered the woods.
Taura carefully helped Ehlan from her saddle and helped her to sit with her back against a tree. She draped Ehlan's cloak around her. Ehlan's breath was coming in rasps and her face was ashen and tight with pain. Taura held a water bag to her lips and helped her drink.
"Why didn't you tell me you had been hurt?" Taura demanded, after Ehlan had drunk her fill.
"We could not have afforded to stop," Ehlan managed. She coughed weakly. "It hurts Taura," she finally admitted.
Taura's eyes were stricken. She pulled the cloak away and tenderly lifted the shirt. A red angry wound seeped blood. Taura caught her breath. She ripped a piece off the ruined tunic and poured water over it. Carefully she cleaned the wound. It was deep and ragged. Ehlan hissed in pain as the cool water rinsed away the blood. Once it was cleaned, Taura pressed another piece of cloth to it and tied it in place.
"That will have to do for now," she said softly.
Ehlan had apparently lost consciousness due to the pain. Taura hurriedly started a fire. She then spread their blankets on the ground next to the fire. Taura then cut away the rest of the bloodied and torn tunic from Ehlan and half carried the woman to the blankets. She covered Ehlan up. Tenderly she brushed away a lock of hair. While Ehlan slept, Taura stocked up on wood for the fire, refilled their water bags, set out a snare for a rabbit and took care of the horses. Twice she had to clean and change the bandage on Ehlan's wound. Still Ehlan did not wake up.
Ehlan felt as if she was on fire, her lips were dry and cracked, strange images flickered on the other side of her lids. She could not open her eyes. A burning sensation came from her side.
"Taura," she croaked. Ehlan felt someone touch her. "Taura, it hurts," she managed.
Taura's eyes were concerned. She felt Ehlan's forehead, concerned over the fever that was raging through Ehlan. Sweat poured out of her. With soft soothing words Taura blotted away the sweat with a cool rag, soaked with cold water.
"Hush now, Ehlan, everything is going to be okay."
"Taura, my mother would approve," whispered Ehlan through dry lips, her eyes still shut.
"I'm sure she would," agreed Taura, just to keep Ehlan quiet.
"I really wanted to rule; with you by my side I could have done so much good."
"Shh, sweetheart, you need to rest."
"I am going to be Queen, Taura will you be my Chosen?" Ehlan's voice trailed off, as if her strength had given out.
Taura was concerned. Fever raged through the woman and her wound still bled. After Ehlan had fallen into a troubled sleep Taura searched around their camp for certain herbs that grew wild. Her mother had taught her basic healing. She had told Taura that if she could cause a wound, she could heal a wound. Taura found what she was looking for and quickly made a poultice for Ehlan.
As Taura applied the healing mixture, Ehlan cried out in her sleep. Taura winced as if it had hurt her. She settled down on the ground next to Ehlan and covered herself with her cloak. The sun was high overhead when she awoke. She was startled to see Ehlan's eyes on her. Ehlan's green eyes were bright from her fever.
"We have to hurry, Baran is waiting. He is waiting. He's going to be High General and we are keeping him waiting. The Tunonien won't wait forever."
"It's okay Ehlan, Baran will wait," Taura reassured her, she placed a hand on Ehlan's brow, it was still warm to the touch, but it did not seem to be as hot as before. For that she was grateful.
"Baran loves you, he'll wait," she said again.
"No, he is in danger, they are going to kill him, to get to me," Ehlan's voice was wild, her eyes wide. "My mother is having another baby, that's why they want to kill me. If I am dead than the baby can be Heir!"
"What are you talking about? The Heir to what?"
"To the High Blood Throne," with that Ehlan fell back, the last of her strength gone.
Taura was stunned. Her suspicions about Ehlan did not include the High Blood Throne! She sat back, her mind a whirl. She had saved the Heir Princess from the Queen's Army. The Queen was trying to kill her child! She had kissed the Heir Princess! What had she gotten herself into? Taura shook her head slowly, trying to clear her thoughts. This could not be happening. Ehlan groaned and Taura went back to her.
Taura washed Ehlan's face, bathing it with cool water. Ehlan still did not seem as warm as she had before. Taura settled down next to Ehlan and tried to get some sleep while she was quiet.
For the next couple of days, Taura was too busy to think about the incident on the road as she hovered over Ehlan, keeping her warm and trying to keep her fever down. Sometimes Ehlan would seem to be improving and others she would seem to be worse. Taura cleaned the wound, grimacing at the angry redness of it. It did not seem to be healing. Ehlan's fever had once again shot up and she was mumbling and shouting intelligibly. Taura knew that despite her best efforts an infection had set in. Tears came to her eyes as she tried to make Ehlan comfortable. Knowing as she did that there was nothing else she could do. The thought of the other woman passing over to Bellus filled her with a deep ache. A sharp pain pierced her heart. The depth of the emotion surprised and frightened her. Taura settled next to Ehlan and lowered her head to pray to the Triad to watch over Ehlan and take her soul painlessly.
As she prayed the amulet at her throat began to grow warm and pulse. Startled she reached up and touched the metal. It jumped into her hand and seemed to vibrate with life. A hum invaded her ears, her hand tightened around the amulet. Words began to form from the humming. Without knowing why, Taura found herself speaking the words, her mouth forming around the unknown language easily. The words started to come faster; the amulet began to glow between her fingers. Her other hand reached out to touch Ehlan. A beam of light shot through her fingers and hit Ehlan in the chest. The woman gasped but her eyes did not open. The beam of light suffused throughout Ehlan, encasing her in its glow. Taura tried to pull her hand away but it would not move. The words started coming faster from her mouth building up into a shouting crescendo of sound. Ehlan's back arched and her face contorted into a grimace. Taura's hand was steady. A ripping sound burst forth and a black sibilant cloud rose from Ehlan's chest and was surrounded by the white light that had engulfed Ehlan. The light began to shrink making the blackness recede into itself, writhing as if in agony. Suddenly with a cacophony of silence the light and the dark cloud disappeared. Taura, breathing heavily took her hand from the amulet.
Wide eyed with surprise she reached an unsteady hand out and felt Ehlan's forehead. It was cool to the touch and the blonde's breathing was normal. Ehlan looked as if she was asleep. Suddenly, Taura felt her bones turn to water; she was barely able to hold her head up. Taura fell back, her head swimming, her stomach heaving. Closing her eyes to stop the world from spinning Taura fell into a deep darkness.
The auburn haired woman sat bolt upright in her tent. Her ears were buzzing and a familiar ache pierced her stomach. Magic. Someone was using Tunonien magic. She pulled aside the blanket that covered her, stood up and strode over to the tent flap. Ducking her head the woman left the tent. A guard, wearing sand colored trousers and tunic saluted her by touching his forehead then his heart.
"Carun, is there something I can get for you?" he asked respectfully. The woman turned her troubled gray eyes to him.
"Get Urra for me, and the Bonded Companion," she ordered softly. The guard nodded once and moved off toward another tent. The woman looked around the darkened camp. Absently she rubbed her chest where her amulet lay.
"Darilas are you unwell?" asked a voice coming from the darkness. Darilas took her eyes from the heavens and looked at the man who had spoken. He had black hair and blazing dark eyes; a mustache was lying snugly over his firm upper lip.
"Baran," she said softly, naming the Heir Princess' Bonded Companion. The tall man moved closer to her. "We must leave at once," Darilas said without preamble. The Bonded Companion looked at the leader of the Tunonien as if she had lost her mind.
"Why? What is the matter?" he asked concerned.
"I have felt magic," Darilas told him softly, her eyes looking off into the distance again.
"Magic?" Baran asked, obviously confused. "You felt magic?" he looked around at the silent campsite. They were surrounded by magic wielding warriors.
"Yes, magic," Darilas' voice was soft, distracted. Baran frowned. "I felt the magic of the Carussa," she said quietly.
Baran's head jerked back, amazement poured off of him in droves. Darilas turned her eyes back to the stunned man. Baran's mind tried grasping what Darilas was saying.
The last Carussa, the hereditary leader of the Tunonien had died many centuries ago. Since then the race of magic wielding warriors had been ruled by the Carun, the War Wizard. The Prophesy though, said that the Carussa would return and lead the armies of Man against the forces of the Dark God, Daimys, the Soul Stealer. Baran's soul filled with horror at the thought. The Antranik, the Battle of Souls, the last battle could be near and he was afraid they were not ready.
"The Carussa?" Baran asked his voice cracking. Baran's eyes were wide, the whites glowing in the night. Darilas looked at him somberly. "Are you sure?"
"Very sure," was the firm answer. "She has used her magic. We must find her. Her use of magic is like a beacon now for the Soul Stealer. She is in incredible danger."
"She?" Baran questioned.
"Yes, she," nodded Darilas. "We must leave at once. The fate of our world depends on it."
Baran looked at the tall woman his mind racing. He was on his way to Borcea with the Tunonien to protect Ehlan's claim to the Throne. Things had been very bad in the capital city with the Queen growing increasingly bizarre. The Tunonien, while loyal to the High Blood Throne had never sworn fealty to the Queen sitting on it. They were loyal to the Throne and all that it stood for. Darilas, having heard of the Queen's behavior had agreed to accompany Baran back to Borcea to see for herself how things stood.
The rumors coming out of Borcea had reached wild proportions. There had been rumblings that Ehlan had grown out of favor with the Queen. There were rumors that the Queen was with child and that she was going to disown Ehlan, in favor of the new child, regardless of the sex of the child. Dispatches had reached him in Tunon of Ehlan's supporters being arrested and executed on flimsy charges. Baran sighed, this was important as well, probably more important than who ascended the High Blood Throne. Darilas watched the emotions flicker across the Bonded Companion's face. Baran sighed and nodded. Darilas let a grim smile slide over her face.
"Taura wake up, Taura," came the persistent voice.
Taura groaned and opened her eyes. Sunlight pierced the trees and shot into her eyes. She quickly closed them again and shielded them from the light. Her head ached as if she had had too much wine. Her mouth was dry and tasted like boot leather.
"Are you okay?" the voice asked again.
Taura groaned and then her eyes shot open. Ehlan! Not only was she talking, she was standing!
"Ehlan! What are you doing up?" with a gasp of pain Taura sat up. She grabbed her head. "How are you feeling?" she asked through her own pain. "Do you think you should be up?" Ehlan frowned.
"Me? I'm fine. Are you okay? You have been asleep for about two days now."
"Two days? Are you sure?" Taura asked incredulous.
"Am I sure?" Ehlan sat back on her heels, surprise evident in her voice. "Yes I'm sure. I have been trying to wake you. What happened? The last I remember was fighting those men and you putting a poultice on my wound," she looked down at her side puzzled.
Under the tear in her shirt was nothing but smooth skin, no scar, no wound, nothing.
"I wake up and find you sprawled on the ground, pale as a ghost and my wound healed. How long was I asleep?"
Taura was confused; she struggled to sit up, fighting back the nausea that threatened to take over. Her eyes took in Ehlan's smooth skin in disbelief. Taura couldn't believe her eyes. It was gone! It was completely gone, as if it had never been there.
"I don't understand," she said softly. "I don't understand." Taura reached out a shaky hand and gently touched the place where there should have been a wound.
"What? I must say you did a pretty good job with my wound. But why did you bother with the poultice, why didn't you just use your magic to begin with?" Ehlan asked matter of factly, not noticing the look on Taura's face.
"Magic?" her voice cracked.
Only the Tunonien could use magic! "I didn't," she began then stopped, she had been about to say she hadn't used magic. But she had. The evidence was right there under her fingers. But that was impossible her mind said. She could not be. Her parents would have told her if they were Tunonien. Wouldn't they? Yes! Her mind screamed, yes they would. They would not keep that a secret. Unless another part of her brain reasoned, unless there was a reason for not telling her. The frightened part of her psyche refused to let her mind go down that path.
"Are you okay Taura? Here, drink some water," Ehlan held the water skin and gently poured some into Taura's mouth.
"It's not true is it? I didn't use magic. I couldn't have," her eyes were large, her skin was waxy, Ehlan frowned. She had never seen Taura so frightened. Did she really not know?
"No, it was your poultice Taura, it must have been," Ehlan said trying to reassure the other woman, her own mind whirling with questions. Taura was nodding gratefully, agreeing with Ehlan.
"Yes, of course, exactly," Taura said almost to herself, her eyes focused on some spot in the woods ahead of her, blocking out the vision of a blue light spouting from her sword to lodge in a man's chest. "That's exactly what it was." Denial sat firmly in her chest.
"Yes. Now whenever you are ready we need to get going. No telling if those goons have someone traveling behind them."
"You're right," Taura struggled to get up. Rising with Ehlan's help she almost fell as her knees buckled under her. She stood gingerly letting the nausea subside again.
"Maybe you should sit back down," Ehlan suggested, not liking the pallor of Taura's skin.
"No, we need to get going. I'll be okay in a minute."
"Are you sure?" asked Ehlan. "All right then, I'll saddle the horses, you wait right here." Taura nodded her agreement.
Taura's mind was in a whirl as she tried to assimilate everything that had happened. She couldn't believe that she had used magic. If she had then everything she had been told had been a lie. Her whole life had been a lie. Why would her parents lie to her? What were they running from? Could she really be a Tunonien? And if she was why had her parents not told her? Why were they living in a remote mountain village? Why were they not living in Tunon? So many questions and no way of getting the answers. Now more than ever she wanted to find Anel.
It was not much later before they were on their way again. Ehlan kept looking behind them to insure they were not being followed. Part of her watched Taura as the other rode along silently, her mind obviously on something that was troubling her. Ehlan herself could not keep her mind off her own troubling thoughts. Her mother pregnant again could only mean one thing. The rumors about her dissatisfaction with Ehlan were true. The rumors that she was going to disinherit Ehlan had been circling of late. It was not unheard of, but Ehlan did not want to think that her mother would do such a thing. She knew that she needed to get to Borcea as quickly as possible.
It was mid afternoon when they reached the next town. Ehlan was a little apprehensive, but the guards at the gate paid little attention to them. She kept the hood of her cloak pulled over her hair, not wanting anyone to see the distinctive color.
The two women rode slowly through the crowded market place. There were many soldiers, but none wearing the Queen's livery. Ehlan concluded they were soldiers from the local garrison or mercenaries. None paid any attention to the two women.
"It may be better if we stayed in town tonight," Taura said softly. "I don't relish another ambush in the woods right now."
"You may be right. Let's find an inn," Ehlan looked around, her eyes fell on a small ragged boy tossing a ball of string in the air and catching it. "Boy," she called out. The boy ran over to them. "Can you tell us where there is a decent inn?"
"Yes milady," his small piping voice floated up to them. Ehlan threw him a couple of copper coins after he had given them directions.
"We would have a room," Ehlan told the small, jovial innkeeper.
"Why surely my lady," he smiled broadly. His apron was clean and the common room was bright and airy. The patrons were all smiling and talking in normal tones. The serving girls were quick and efficient, smiling and flirting. Both women were pleased.
"We also have horses to be stabled for the night," Taura said.
"Very good. Bryce!" the innkeeper called out. A young boy of 15 passings, who looked remarkably like a younger version of the innkeeper, appeared from the kitchen area. "Please stable the horses outside for the ladies," he told the boy.
"Right away Poppa," the boy said with a shy smile at Ehlan and Taura.
After paying the innkeeper, the two women picked a table in the back of the room and ordered a meal. Suddenly finding themselves with just each other and no excuse not to talk, they were suddenly shy.
"And I say, if Princess Ehlan calls for volunteers I will join," came the voice of one man at a table near them. He was speaking to his three companions. They each had a tankard of ale in front of them.
"You're talking civil war man!" One of his companions stated incredulously.
"Yes I am Micah," the first man answered adamantly. "The Queen will never step down. We could have years of this!"
"Rek, what happened to your brother was a terrible shame..." a third man began.
"The Queen had him killed because he walked in front of her carriage!" Rek shouted, slamming his hand down on the table. The other patrons looked at the four men. Ehlan's face had gone pale. "She's bleeding us dry with her new taxes; she's executing men and women everyday for a variety of reasons. So, yes I will support Ehlan and I know many others who feel the same!"
"Rek, now, calm down. No one believes that story," the innkeeper said coming over with a tray with four full tankards, trying to calm the red-faced man.
"What story?" Taura found herself asking. The innkeeper looked over.
"A messenger came through town. Said there was a warrant for the arrest of Heir Princess Ehlan, said she was massing an army to overthrow the Queen," his voice quiet as he imparted the news.
"He said the Queen has locked herself in her rooms, that she is afraid the Heir Princess is coming to kill her. Rumor out of Borcea says that the High Councilor Ferran has taken control of the council. They have been rounding up Ehlan's supporters and executing them, on very flimsy charges," Ehlan gasped and the blood drained from her face.
"What about Baran, the Bonded Companion?" Ehlan's voice sounded strained to her ears.
"He has been in the Plains of Tunon. Supposedly he is due back in Borcea in a few weeks, according to the messenger. Apparently, according to rumor again, Ferran is not yet willing to move against Baran yet. He is trying to consolidate his hold over the council first. Besides, Baran has the army and the Tunonien loyal to him. I think that Ferran wants to wait. He has to get enough power first. He has to take on Maybor before he can take on Baran."
"Maybor?" Ehlan asked, her mind whirling.
"The Queen keeps him by her side. She makes no decisions without his say so. Lately all communication is coming from him. In fact the messenger said no one has even seen the Queen," the innkeeper answered. "Some say she may be pregnant again."
"It sounds as if things are much disorganized in Borcea right now," Ehlan commented thoughtfully.
"The Prophesy is coming to pass," Rek said his voice filled with doom. "The time has come. One moon has already risen red; soon the others will follow. The Soul Stealer will be loose and the Tunonien will fight among themselves and no one will be able to save us."
"Rek! Knock it off!" the innkeeper shouted at him.
"Thank you innkeeper. You have given me valuable information," Ehlan said to the man as he moved to exchange their empty mugs with fresh ones.
"It has been my pleasure Princess," the innkeeper said softly, leaning in close so no one could over hear him. "You are safe here," he said noticing her surprised look. "There is no love lost between this district and the High Council and the Queen. Not all of us believe everything the messenger said."
"My thanks, you are a good man. But how did you know who I was?"
"I was in Borcea during your 16th passing ceremony. I saw you as your horse passed by on your way to the Temple of the Triad for your blessing," he smiled. "I must say you are much more beautiful now." He blushed and Ehlan grinned. She turned to look back at Taura who had been following the exchange.
"So now you know," she said softly, picking up her tankard.
"Yes, I thought so but I was unsure." Taura answered, her mind still whirling.
It was true, she had thought Ehlan was a part of the ruling class, but she had not thought she was Heir Princess!
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. I tried the other night, but I just couldn't seem to get the words out."
"Were you afraid to let me know?"
"Sort of, I wanted you to get to know me, not my title," Ehlan admitted ruefully. The two fell into silence as the serving girl placed two trenchers in front of them, piled with meat and cheese and bread.
"You know, since they have a warrant for my arrest for treason that would also include anyone who is traveling with me," she paused taking Taura's hand. "I will release you from your promise to help me and you can go on your way and find your brother," Ehlan told Taura. The other looked down at their clasped hands and took a deep breath before replying.
"I gave you my word Ehlan and I am not going to back out now," Taura said softly. She raised her eyes and the two shared a deep gaze that neither wanted to break. Each feeling a wealth of emotions pass between them. Neither could explain the feelings that welled up in their hearts.
"I'm confused Ehlan," Taura said later after they had been silently eating for a while.
"About what Taura?"
"What is the High Council?" Ehlan stopped her hand as it was lifting her tankard to her mouth.
"The Council is the governing body of Tinesse. It is made up of Tibors from the twelve districts. They in turn vote and elect the High Council. They pass judgments and form laws for the Queen to approve or disapprove. They advise the Queen in all matters. The Queen though has final say on all decisions, but rarely does she go against their judgments."
"Can the High Council overthrow her decision?"
"No, the Queen's power is absolute. Her word is law."
"The Queen sits on the High Blood Throne right?"
"Yes the High Blood Throne is the ruling Throne, which means the other six kingdoms all swear fealty to the High Throne and if necessary her decisions concerning their kingdoms are law. For the most part, they govern themselves."
"It sounds complicated," Taura shook her head.
"It sounds like it, but it's not really," Ehlan chuckled softly. "You'll get used to it," Ehlan's voice softened, lowered. Taura looked started for a moment. Heat suffused her face as she remembered the kiss she and Ehlan had shared.
"I am not noble born," Taura said suddenly, surprising herself. Ehlan looked at her strangely for a moment before smiling. She raised her tankard in salute and drained it.
"Is that a problem for you?" Ehlan asked a small secret smile on her face. Taura could not remove her eyes from Ehlan's.
Ehlan gazed back, her eyes conveying all the emotions that had been bubbling up to the surface. She had never felt about anyone the way she felt about Taura. Ehlan wanted to be with her, to touch her, to hold her, to take care of her. Ehlan could almost hear herself asking Taura to be her Chosen, but another's face formed unbidden in her mind, another promise remembered.
Her mother of course would never approve. Her mother and the High Council were hoping for an alliance between her and one of the daughters of a Royal Tibor or from one of the Six Kingdoms, or with Serina, cousin to King Vicoll of Titone or failing that from one of the minor kingdoms. One councilor had been promoting a daughter from the ruling class of the desert dwellers across the sea. They had even paraded their own daughters and sons before her. Ehlan had never shown anything but a passing interest in any of the women. But now, she knew that her mother and the council would fight her in this choice. It was too dangerous to them all. Taura's life was now doubly in danger.
"It could be a problem for others," Taura replied softly. Her gaze intently pinning Ehlan's eyes, hot emotion and desire filled her gray depths and speared into Ehlan's soul.
"Let's take it one problem at a time Taura."
Taura was nervous as they made their way to the room that the innkeeper provided for them. The looks and touches they had shared since that midnight kiss had seared her with desire. Her stomach trembled, not with fear, but with anticipation. She knew what was going to happen once they were alone and she could barely contain the excitement that was building up. Ehlan was silent as they entered the room. She looked around, her face bland, her thoughts hidden. Taura swallowed hard and also looked around the room. It was neat and clean with a large bed in the center, covered with a red and white quilt. A wooden wardrobe stood in the corner. The window overlooked the back of the inn, facing the small pasture where the horses were kept. Under the window was a stand with a porcelain pitcher and bowl. Taura deposited her pack and staff in the corner near the wardrobe. Silently she unbuckled her sword and leaned it against the wall next to her staff. Ehlan shut and bolted the door. She then deposited her own pack and sword. Once that was done the two looked at each other.
Taura couldn't take her eyes off Ehlan's green eyes; they held her in thrall. Shivers of excitement ran up and down her back. Her hands trembled slightly as she reached up and pushed away a lock of hair. Ehlan took a step toward her stopping when they were standing face to face. Another woman's face swam briefly before her eyes; Ehlan felt a brief moment of guilt before she pushed all thoughts of Serina away and lost herself in Taura's eyes. She looked down at the slightly shorter woman. Still not speaking she reached up and behind Taura. Gently she loosened the tie that held Taura's auburn hair back letting the tresses fall. Her hair fell; cascading down Taura's back, springing into her natural curls, almost coming alive. Ehlan could not resist; she took a hold of one lock, feeling the vibrancy as it lay against her fingers. Her hand almost of its own violation ran through the locks of hair. Taura did not say a word, she just watched as Ehlan took delight in her hair. She had never liked her hair before until she saw the look of wonder and delight on Ehlan's face as she ran her hand through it. A small smile formed on her mouth. Ehlan could take it no longer; with a sound almost like a groan she pulled Taura to her and pulled her head back.
She looked down at Taura. The other's mouth was open slightly, her lips parted, waiting for Ehlan's own to take hers. Taura's gray eyes were hooded, smoky with desire. Her face was slightly flushed. Ehlan felt herself smile and lowered her head and tenderly placed her lips over Taura's. No sound was in the room, but Taura could hear her heart pounding so loud she was surprised that Ehlan could not hear it. Neither moved as their lips barely touched. Then slowly, softly, their lips pressed closer, moving in a silky movement. The tip of Ehlan's tongue traced Taura's lips; smiling Taura captured Ehlan's lips in a deep kiss. She stepped in close and wrapped her arms around Ehlan. They groaned almost as one at the contact. Suddenly they were a mass of movement as they hurriedly undressed the other.
"By the Gods, Taura you are beautiful," breathed Ehlan, as Taura stood naked before her.
Her curves were lush, with finely muscled thighs and arms. Her breasts were firm and full, with large brown nipples erect, aching to be touched. The vee of her womanhood was covered in lush, fine reddish brown hair, curling seductively, hiding from Ehlan's view Taura's essence. Ehlan could not seem to catch her breath, as her eyes eagerly drank in the sight of Taura's perfection.
"You are so beautiful," Ehlan whispered again, her eyes raking over the smooth light olive tones of Taura's skin.
She reached out a hand, surprised that it was shaking, Ehlan almost fearfully caressed Taura's shoulder. Taura was smiling a secret, womanly smile.
"Thank you Your Highness," Taura said almost demurely. Her own eyes took in Ehlan's naked form. Ehlan was tall and lean, her hips were slim and her breasts were firm. Her womanhood was covered with soft blond down. Ehlan smiled and stepped away from Taura and backed up toward the bed.
"I'm pleased that you are finally going to give me the respect that I am due," she said smiling, her eyes dark with passion. Taura laughed, delighting Ehlan further. She pulled Taura close and kissed her, leaving them both breathless.
The kiss not breaking they lay down on the bed. Taura gasped as their skin touched fully as Ehlan covered her with her own body. The trembling in the pit of her stomach grew. Every part of her body ached for Ehlan's touch. Ehlan though seemed to be content only with exploring Taura's mouth with her own. Her fingers threaded through Taura's hair. The kiss grew deeper, as Ehlan's lips ravished Taura's, drinking deep into Taura's soul. Taura moaned and arched her back grinding her chest into Ehlan's. Ehlan tore her lips from Taura's and kissed her throat, leaving a fiery trail as she moved lower.
"Oh Ehlan," Taura gasped as Ehlan's mouth closed over Taura's erect nipple, causing waves of pleasure to crash into them both.
Taura arched her back again and pulled Ehlan's head closer. Ehlan then went to the other nipple. After what seemed to be an eternity to Taura, Ehlan began moving again, kissing Taura's flat stomach. She moved ever downward. Ehlan smiled as she felt Taura tremble as she parted her thighs.
Ehlan sighed with pleasure as before her eyes, Taura's moist center was revealed to her. Still smiling, she bent her head and lightly touched the tip of her tongue to the pink pulsating center that was revealed to her. Taura cried out at the touch. Ehlan gently traced Taura's center, tasting the sweet nectar. She breathed deeply of the slight musky scent of Taura's arousal. Taura groaned and pulled Ehlan's head close. With a chuckle deep in her throat, Ehlan pushed her tongue deep into Taura. Her tongue moved along the grooves and valleys letting Taura's essence flow into her mouth, loving the taste of it, loving the silky feel of Taura's center. Taura's hips began to move with the rhythm that Ehlan's tongue set. Her head moved back and forth, her eyes were shut as she held Ehlan's head close. Taura could feel the end rushing to her, sending her rushing toward release. As pressure began to build, she heard her voice calling out Ehlan's name over and over. Suddenly a liquid heat burst through, into Ehlan's eager mouth. Taura fell back, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Ehlan kissed the inside of Taura's thighs, moving back up to capture Taura's lips in her own. Taura groaned, as she tasted her nectar on Ehlan's lips. She held Ehlan's face as she kissed Ehlan hard. The kiss broke and Ehlan looked down at the woman beneath her. Taura looked wanton, her hair was spread over the pillows, like red fire, her skin glowed from within. Her eyes were still smoky with desire. Ehlan could not help but grin. Taura answered with a grin of her own and with a quick move had Ehlan pinned beneath her.
"Your Highness, it looks as if you have done this before," teased Taura, her eyes hungrily on Ehlan's lips.
"A few times," Ehlan admitted. A cloud passed over her eyes. "Does that bother you?"
"No, should it? Are they here now?" Taura asked.
"No," Ehlan answered softly, her eyes on Taura's lips as they came closer.
"Then why should it bother me?" Taura moved closer, her lips almost touching Ehlan's.
"It shouldn't," Ehlan's voice was low, a slight quiver.
"I didn't think so," with that Taura took Ehlan's mouth in a deep kiss. Ehlan tried to take charge of the kiss, but Taura was insistent.
As Taura kissed Ehlan, her hands moved down to cup Ehlan's breasts, her fingers rubbing the nipples even more erect. Ehlan groaned deep in her throat. Taura's mouth moved to take one erect nipple in her mouth, suckling gently, her tongue rolling over the nipple, causing Ehlan to groan again. Her fingers lightly pinched the other nipple. Her knee pushed between Ehlan's legs, sighing when she felt Ehlan's wetness. Her leg moved, grinding into Ehlan. The blonde's hips began to move, an unfamiliar ache began as she panted for Taura to touch her.
"Please, Taura," she pleaded, not caring that she had never uttered those words to a lover before. "Please," she sighed when Taura's hand slipped between them and slipped into Ehlan's wetness. Taura sighed as well as her hand moved easily over Ehlan's hard core. Her fingers slipped easily into Ehlan. "Oh, by the Gods," gasped Ehlan, her eyes opened wide. All she saw was Taura's gray eyes as they looked down into her face. Their eyes locked as Taura's fingers moved in and out slowly. Ehlan could not believe the rush of sensation she was feeling.
Taura's breath caught as Ehlan's silkiness wrapped around her fingers, keeping them deep inside Ehlan. Her hips then began to move and Taura's hand followed her rhythm. Slowly then building in speed as Ehlan rushed toward climax. Suddenly Ehlan clutched Taura's fingers deep, molten lava poured forth, searing them both. Ehlan cried out Taura's name over and over while Taura rained kisses over her face. They were both surprised to find Ehlan's face wet with tears.
"Ehlan are you all right?" she asked concerned. "I didn't hurt you did I?"
"No, my love, you didn't hurt me."
"Then why are you crying?"
"No one has ever been able to pleasure me like that," Ehlan answered her voice soft, her eyes full of wonder as she looked up at Taura. "No one has ever been able to make me feel." She smiled her eyes lighting up.
Taura answered her smile with one of her own. Still smiling she bent her head and gently kissed the woman beneath her.
It was much later before the two of them fell into a deep dreamless sleep. They slept wrapped in each other's arms, content to be as close as they could to each other. With matching smiles they slept on, oblivious to the outside world.
The two women arose early despite their late night. At first they were shy with each other, before Ehlan, laughingly took Taura in her arms and kissed her deeply. The kiss would have grown more serious but Taura reluctantly reminded them both that they needed to be on their way. They quickly packed up and with one more kiss they left the room, each carrying fond memories. They quickly replenished their supplies. It was necessary to buy a third horse to carry the amount of supplies that Ehlan insisted were necessary for their journey. Ehlan assured Taura that she would be reimbursed fully as Taura grumblingly paid for their purchases. Gathering their cloaks around them to ward off the chill wind, the two set out again.
They rode hard for the next two weeks. They decided not to stop in any of the towns or villages they passed through. Often times just Taura would go in to the town to find any sign of Anel or any news. The news was often grim. Wild tales of Ehlan leading an army toward Borcea, the Queen beheading Ehlan's supporters or any one whom said anything in the Heir Princess' favor. Tales of Baran leading a wild band of Tunonien war wizards to storm the castle and taking the Queen hostage. Tales of terror as they recounted the rising of Tilen, the small moon, as it still shone a deep red. Tales of the Prophesy were recounted in every inn and tavern that they stopped at. Taura listened to the stories of the Prophesy with a frown. Her mind skittered away from the questions that arose. Ehlan watched her carefully, but did not say anything. She believed the Prophesy, and feared that it was now coming to pass.
At night they would take turns standing guard, as neither wanted a repeat performance. They would make camp, each falling into a comfortable pattern. After supper they would hold each other close, often making love, then one would take the first watch while the other fell asleep. As they rode along each day Ehlan would tell Taura amusing stories of the sycophants in her mother's court.
Taura in turn would tell the Heir Princess what her life as a farm girl was like. Ehlan would listen for hours to the tales of a loving simple family. Her certainty about Taura's heritage and destiny, becoming more and more obvious. She also began to understand Taura's anguish over losing her parents and the possibility that her brother was responsible. Talking about them also helped Taura grieve and for the wounds to start to heal. Taura could almost feel the grief loosen its hold on her chest. Also, as they learned of each other the first love was beginning to blossom.
Ehlan shivered and pulled her cloak tighter. She sat as close as she stared into the cheerfully burning fire. Taura was off hunting. Ehlan snorted in disgust. She herself had tried her hand at snaring a rabbit. The trap had failed miserably. As a woods woman she was falling short. New feelings of inadequacy were quickly suppressed. Ehlan had never had any cause to learn these things. She knew lots of things that Taura did not. Like how to deal with ambassadors for one, how to negotiate a treaty for another, she mentally chided herself. She could also ride, she knew how to use her sword and of course she knew how to rule! Ehlan sat up straighter as she thought of all her accomplishments. Since birth she had been trained to sit the High Blood Throne and rule. And by the Goddess she would!
Feeling only slightly better, Heir Princess Ehlan pulled her cloak tight once more. Sighing, she wished they would stay in town again. The thought of relaxing in a tub of warm water with Taura led to other thoughts of Taura on the bed, her glorious hair spread out, that secret smile on her lips. Ehlan sighed again regretfully.
Ehlan had to grudgingly admit that after the events of the last town they went through it was probably a good idea that they stayed away. The small town had a garrison of Queen's soldiers. One of them had recognized Ehlan. It had taken some serious persuasion to get him to forget he had seen her. She wondered idly if they had found his body yet.
As they had been traveling further west they had noticed more and more people along the roads. For the most part the other travelers would ignore them. Ehlan, though, had been disturbed to see the quiet mobilization of arms. It wasn't just local troops or the Queen's soldiers. It was the lean, hard-eyed mercenaries. Someone was paying for fighters and they were gathering.
This worried Ehlan. At every small town the rumors were getting wilder. One serving girl had insisted that the Heir Princess Ehlan had passed through two days prior with an army at her back saying she was on her way to kill her mother the Queen and take the Blood Throne. Another said that the Heir Princess had been killed and the Queen's Army was taking her head back to the High Council. And still another told the incredulous story that Ehlan had forsaken her soul to Daimys and was headed to the border to lead an army against the realm. This rocked Ehlan. She had mumbled for miles about that.
Other stories revolved around the Prophesy. That not only had the small moon risen red but also the others had risen red but soon drained to white. Priestesses from the mountains were coming down in the droves, heading for the safety of the temples. That Tunonien wizards were scouring the countryside searching for their Carussa, their hereditary leader to lead them against Niam. Ehlan had no doubt that that particular story was true. She had seen a Tunonien patrol a few days back, but had lead Taura deeper into the woods.
A part of her said that was foolish, that if Taura was who Ehlan was beginning to suspect she was then Taura belonged to the Tunonien. But another part of her wanted to keep Taura with her for as long a possible. Taura's possible destiny frightened her and she wanted to keep Taura as safe from it for as long as she could. But the rational part of her brain told her that everyone's destiny was tied to Taura's and if she was not prepared it would do no one any good. Sighing she pushed thoughts of the Tunonien and the Prophesy aside.
Taura herself had become increasingly withdrawn as the miles between herself and the home of her childhood increased. The inescapable truth would not be denied. Her parents were dead. She herself was finding in herself a startling capability for magic. And everywhere she went, people told her of Anel and his "evil" manner. The boy she had grown up with had become arrogant, cruel, and evil. Taura knew she should not still have faith in him. It was hard. The bitter truth was there staring at her. It settled in her throat, making it hard to swallow. She clung to her loyalty, keeping her sanity; she did not want to face her brother's betrayal.
"We've gained time on them. If we travel through the night we should be able to catch up with them," Ehlan told Taura the day before as they had broken camp.
There had been frost on the ground and their breath turned to puffs of clouds as they spoke. The early freeze worried them both, but for different reasons.
They had traveled hard that day, and night, pushing the horses. Finally, just after dawn, before they reached the town of Ciro, they decided to stop, to rest the horses and eat a hot meal. When Taura returned they cooked and ate the rabbit in silence, each lost in her own thoughts. In a few hours Taura would have all the answers to her questions regarding her brother. Ehlan's heart went out to the silent woman who sat opposite her.
"We should go," Taura finally said. Ehlan looked at her silently before nodding, aching to take the woman in her arms. They quickly struck their makeshift camp and headed out.
Ehlan warily watched the people around them as they made their way slowly through the small town of Ciro. It was larger than some of the other towns they had gone through. The streets were slowly coming alive as the sun began its ascent.
"How big is Borcea?" Taura asked in a small voice as she looked around. Ehlan laughed.
"It is bigger than any we have seen so far," Ehlan answered; she laughed again at the look of panic on Taura's face.
It didn't take them long to locate the inn were Anel was staying. The two women made their way through the streets toward the inn. Once there Ehlan paid the stable boy to hold their horses. Taura stood in front of the inn, her hand clenching her father's staff, her knuckles white, and her face pale. Ehlan made sure her sword was loose in its scabbard. She would kill Anel herself before she let Taura live with that guilt. Taking a deep breath Taura entered the common room with Ehlan behind her.
The room was dark, except for weak illumination from a sullen fire and a few candles. The dirty tables were for the most part empty. Ehlan let her eyes scan the room, till they settled on the table at the far end of the room. She heard Taura's quick intake of breath.
There were four men sitting at the table. They were laughing heartily, mugs of ale and half-eaten bowls of stew sat in front of them. The four were laughing at something one of the men was saying. A frowning serving girl who was sitting on his leg partially hid him from their view. The serving girl tried to get up, revealing the man.
Ehlan's breath caught. Sitting in the chair was a mirror image of Taura. The man's features though, were harder, petulant, and vain. As the man pulled the woman back down he caught sight of the two women standing in the doorway of the common room. Something flickered in his eyes. Ehlan knew then that he had killed his parents.
Taura began walking slowly toward her brother. Her pain filled eyes never leaving his face. Ehlan could see the hope in her and ached at the sight. Before this day was over Ehlan vowed to shed Anel's blood to make him pay for the pain he had caused this woman.
"Taura," Anel greeted simply. The other three men fell silent. Violence and darkness seemed to shimmer around them. Anel relaxed his hold on the serving girl and she quickly left. "So nice to see you sister mine," his dead eyes flickered to Ehlan. Recognition lighted them for a fleeting moment.
"Anel," Taura began, her voice breaking. "Anel, Poppa and Mother are dead," she said in a rush, delivering her message still hoping.
Anel took a drink from his mug before answering. His eyes filled with malicious amusement.
"I know," was all he said. Taura was stunned. It was as if he had slapped her, or driven the knife into her. She could no longer pretend that he was innocent.
"And," Anel continued, "If time had not been of such essence, I would have waited for you to come down from the mountain."
"Anel," Taura shook her head, still trying in vain to believe in her brother's innocence. "I don't understand."
"Don't you?" his voice was scornful. "Tell me why you followed me all this way?"
"To tell you," Taura struggled with his change of direction.
"To tell me or to join me?" he sipped from his mug again, his manner nonchalant. Ehlan watched the other men carefully ready for anything.
"Yes, our blood is the same, you must feel the same calling," his eyes became bright. "You can not imagine the power of it Taura."
"It is true then, you did go to Daimys," Taura's voice was soft; her eyes though were horrified.
"Yes," Anel breathed, his voice filled with power, lust. "And now with you at my side Taura, the armies of the Dark God will conquer the Goddess' pitiful legions and rule again. You as His bride and I as His general!" the belief in his voice was almost a living thing, thrumming, his eyes shinning. The other three looked on almost enraptured. "Come with me Taura. It will be like we dreamed."
"Remember when we were children? Our dreams of great battles? Of riches and power? All of that can be ours! You and me like we planned, riding at the head of a great army. Taura the army is waiting and we will crush the armies of the Queen and the Lower Thrones. All this will be ours. This we will rule!" the passion in his voice twisted Ehlan's soul.
"You are mad," Taura whispered her eyes were filled with horror, pity and disbelief. She almost did not recognize the man sitting at the table.
"Not mad, my sister. I have never before been this lucid," Anel's voice became soft, his eyes glittering dangerously. "Taura, you of course will have to give up the Goddess' Perversion, but your rewards as the One God's bride will be beyond belief, you will hardly miss what you gave up."
"Anel, how could you?" whereas Anel's voice was controlled, calm, Taura's was filled with anguish. "How could you have done this?" Anel lightly shrugged. The other three men remained silent, watching as their leader spoke with his sister. Ehlan stood ready to protect Taura should they draw their swords.
"I needed their souls," Taura took a step back, almost as if he had struck her, reeling from the unseen blow. "To prove my worth and to open myself to the Dark God's gift, magic," he breathed the word reverently.
Taura's eyes widened. Magic, could she have let the Dark One in? Was that why she now seemed to have magic?
"You will need to do the same Taura," Anel's eyes shifted toward Ehlan. "The Heir Princess's soul would be a wondrous start."
Before his sentence was complete, as one, the three men at the table rose, swords pointing at Ehlan, her sword also drawn and held at the ready.
"No!" Taura shouted, jumping in front of Ehlan, the staff held low in front of her.
Anel snapped his head back, his eyes wide in shock. His eyes were riveted on the staff. He carefully pushed back his chair to give more room between himself and the staff in Taura's hands, his eyes never leaving the staff.
"What are you doing with that?" he hissed. He slowly stood his hand around the hilt of his still sheathed sword. "Taura, what are you doing with that?" he demanded his calm breaking.
A slight sheen of sweat broke out over his brow. The wooden staff in his sister's hand seemed to pulse and move in her hand, he could feel coldness in his soul as he looked at his father's staff in her hands. He could feel the magic in him coil away.
"Throw down that vile thing Taura!" he almost shouted.
"Take it from me," Taura said her voice quiet, intent deadly.
Behind her she heard the door slam as the innkeeper ran from the common room. Anel looked at Daut and nodded.
Daut moved around the table his eyes on Taura. The woman stepped back lightly, still keeping herself between Ehlan and the others.
The man who faced her now was nothing like the boy she climbed trees with. His dark eyes were dead; a sneer seemed to be permanent on his lips. Daut came at her steady, confident. Taura watched, suddenly calm. The staff in her hands felt warm, vibrant, almost alive. She heard a strange singing sound in her ears.
With a suddenness that surprised even Taura, the staff jumped hitting Daut's wrist making him drop his sword. The staff spinned and buried itself in Daut's stomach, as he bent double, the other end of the staff came over and hit the base of his skull with a sickening crunch. Without a sound Daut crumbled to the floor. Taura returned to her position, holding the staff lightly, ready for another attack. The singing in her ears had stopped.
"I see," Anel said softly, his eyes full of sudden understanding. His features hardened. "I had such high hopes for us Taura. Once again you disappoint me. Now I have no choice. The Dark God has given me his answer to your disobedience."
"Why Anel?" his sister asked, her voice breaking. Anel shrugged.
"I can't let you do this."
"You can't stop me Taura. It is my destiny to rule the kingdoms, to sit the High Blood Throne, the true King."
"Over my dead body!" Ehlan managed through clenched teeth.
"Of course," Anel smiled slightly. He turned to the other two men. "Kill them," he said an in the same breath he attacked with his sword.
Both Ehlan and Taura were hard pressed to protect themselves for the sudden onslaught of the three. Anel and the others worked them around to where Taura and Ehlan were facing the entrance. The fighting grew fiercer as each side strode to gain the advantage. Anel suddenly broke for the door, leaving his two friends to face his sister and the Heir Princess. The two fought hard but it soon became apparent that the women were clearly the better fighters. Swiftly the two men turned and fled following Anel. Ehlan started to go after them.
"No," Taura managed, breathing heavily. "They'll be gone before we get outside," Taura said softly, her eyes fixed on the door. Her eyes were sad as she looked at the door.
"We can track them."
"No, Anel won't make the same mistake," Taura eyes welled up, but the tears did not fall. "We have to get to Borcea. You must warn your mother." Somewhere deep inside herself Taura knew this to be true.
"He is going to attack isn't he?" Ehlan's voice was filled with dread.
The thought of an army of Daimys' followers crossing the Borders filled her with foreboding. The Prophesy swirled around her head.
"Yes," was the quiet answer. The two women shared a looked filled with trepidation.
They pushed their mounts hard the next few days, each feeling a separate urgency. The number of people they saw along the road increased. They were never alone along the Queen's Highway now. Troops patrolling the road worried them the most.
"What do we do first?" Taura asked. Once more the auburn haired woman felt at a loss, unsure. Now that she had found Anel and knew for sure that he had killed their parents she felt adrift, uncertain. Taura could not stop the uneasy feelings that engulfed her.
Taura looked around at the people around them. For the last few days they had been riding through what she had thought was a village, but was in reality a small town on the outskirts of Borcea.
"First, we need to get you into the Palace and in to see Baran," Ehlan told her. "He'll help us."
"What do you think is going on?"
"I'm not sure but I have a pretty good idea where things are headed." was the grim reply from the silver blond woman.
"Beware, the time of the Prophesy is upon us," intoned a woman standing in a crowd at a cross street. Taura looked at Ehlan and saw the other had a tight look on her face. Taura stopped her horse. The woman continued. "The small moon Tilen has risen red, soon the others will follow. Winter is coming early to our lands," the woman had a singsong quality to her voice that captivated Taura. Ehlan, having ridden ahead realized that Taura had not followed. She turned her horse back.
"There is now strife in the house of Amarilys, the High Blood Throne, all the signs are pointing to the coming of the Outlander Tunonien. Then the realms will shake with the coming and the Dark God will be loose to once more make war upon us! We must be ready!" a full-throated roar rose from the gathering crowd.
"Taura, come away from there," Ehlan ordered. She felt fear in her stomach.
Ehlan had realized after Taura healed her, that the woman traveling with her was more than she seemed. In fact the Heir Princess believed that Taura was the Carussa the one that not only the Tunonien had waited for, but all of Mankind. Ehlan knew that Taura would have to find out, but not yet, she still needed to make Taura safe before she realized whom she was. If she realized her importance then she would be in danger without her power. Ehlan knew that she had to be taught and that would require a Tunonien.
"What is she talking about Ehlan?" Taura asked reluctantly moving away to join the blond.
Taura was fascinated by what the woman was saying. Growing up she could not help but hear of the Prophesy that had driven the Priesthood, but there was something different about it now. Maybe it was the formal way in which the words were spoken, or maybe it was the magic she felt welling up inside.
"She's talking about nonsense Taura, come on we still have a ways to go." Ehlan was insistent.
Ehlan kicked her horse and continued down the road. Taura paused torn between her desire to hear more and her need to be with Ehlan. With a sigh, Taura spurred her horse and followed Ehlan.
Darilas wearily dismounted and looked around. She could feel they were getting closer. The Carun was concerned that they were so close to Borcea. The Tunonien knew that there was magic there, evil magic and she was afraid if the Carussa entered the city without protection she would be in danger. With the Carussa so close, Darilas did not want to endanger her.
"Do you want to stop here Carun?" asked Urra coming up to her.
"No, she is close. We must continue," she told him. The man nodded once, his belief in her complete.
"Darilas, do you realize we are less than a day from Borcea?" Baran asked, leading his horse over to her. The tall woman turned her eyes from the road to look at the dark haired man.
"Yes, she is close."
"Darilas, I don't pretend to understand your magic or how you are following someone you can't see, but are you sure?" Baran asked a slight frown marring his features.
Urra's face became a thundercloud of disapproval. The Bonded Companion had questioned Darilas on numerous occasions since they had begun following the magic trail left by the Carussa. Urra's mouth opened to snap a retort but Darilas stopped him with a shake of her head.
"My Lord Companion," she began. "As you say you do not understand our magic. All Tunonien are connected. The Goddess, when she gave us our magic, instilled in us the ability to feel Tunonien magic. I can tell the difference between Urra's magic and the smallest child back in Tunon. A Kaden, or a master can feel the weave of every Tunonien's magic and tell you who they are, where they are and what spell they are performing," Darilas told him, her eyes flashing with either anger or zeal, Baran couldn't tell.
"I don't understand," Baran began, still not sure what Darilas was getting at.
"My Lord Companion, what I am getting at, is that I know by feel, every Tunonien's magic. This magic that I feel is Tunonien, but she in unknown to me. Which can only mean one thing, Baran," Darilas finished softly, a weary slump to her shoulders. "She is the Tunonien raised in the Outland, either she is the Carussa, or there is another Outland Tunonien," she paused and let this information sink in. "Either way, I must find her," her voice rang with conviction.
Baran struggled with what Darilas was saying. He wanted to believe, but to believe what she was saying would be to believe that the Antranik was coming. That thought chilled his soul. But Baran also knew that to not believe could put them all in danger. He studied the woman opposite him. He had known the Carun all his life. She, like Ehlan had been a constant. He trusted her almost as much as he trusted Ehlan. With a deep breath Baran nodded, placing the future of the High Blood Throne and the six kingdoms in the hands of the Tunonien woman. If in fact this was the Carussa, then anything else was moot point. His desire to get to Borcea to try to retain the Throne for Ehlan was secondary to this. This was the moment that would forever mark him. The Lord Companion could order the Tunonien to abandon this wild chase and go to Borcea. They may or may not listen, their desire to find their Carussa was all consuming. Darilas nodded and turned to give the order to mount up again. Her eyes scanned the area feeling in her soul that they were close.
The road that Ehlan and Taura were on lead away from the small village, Ehlan turned off onto a small woodcutter's trail. It wound its way up the mountain and into the higher reaches away from the bustle of the Queen's Highway. Ehlan looked over at Taura periodically and smiled a soft smile. She could not wait to show Taura her city, the home of her birth, the home of her reign. Soon they came to the top of the mountain; the trees cleared away and spread out below them in all its majesty was the gleaming city of Borcea. The mountains surrounded the city on two sides. The sprawling city could be seen to slowly move up the base of the mountain at its back. The city was accessible by the open area that the Queen's Highway rode through as it rolled over small hills. On the fourth side was the ocean. Stretching as far as the eye could see the blue expanse sparkled in the morning sun. Taura had heard her father speak of the ocean but she had no idea it would be so big.
The city itself sat in majestic splendor. It knew it was the largest in all the land. The buildings were white and when the sun hit them they would dazzle the eye.
"I present to you the City of Borcea, the seat of the High Blood Throne," Ehlan said softly, almost formally. Her voice was filled with pride as her eyes drank in the sight of her home.
In the other towns and villages they had gone through, the streets had curved and run their course. But here in Borcea, the roads were straight, with many cross streets. As Taura sat, her eyes drinking it all in, she watched as small people crisscrossed along those roads.
"I have never seen anything like it," Taura said truthfully, shaking her head. She had never imagined anything like Borcea.
"It is so beautiful," Taura breathed her eyes still drinking in the sight of the city laid out before her. Ehlan laughed delightedly.
"Yes, my love, that it is. Come, we still have a ways to go," Taura followed, her eyes still wide.
Ehlan carefully picked her way down the mountain, the trail leading them deep into the forest. Taura trusted her completely. The small trail moved ever upward, higher into the mountain as they slowly made their way around the city. Ehlan had explained to Taura that she was taking them to a little used gate behind the city. In order to get there they had to cross the mountain range and circle around the city. It would take longer but it would be safer.
"So what happens once we get into the city?" Taura asked later that night after they had made camp. Ehlan had told her that it would take anywhere from two to three days to go around the mountain range.
"The first thing we need to do is get a message to the palace," Ehlan finally said between bites of fragrant stew.
"And how do you propose we do that?" Taura asked. Ehlan grinned.
"We get a message to my cousin Joli," the blond woman answered. "Then you will go to the Palace to see Baran."
"How am I going to get in to see Baran?" Taura asked incredulously.
"It will depend on Joli," Ehlan answered with a shrug, finishing her stew. Taura sighed and with a shrug of her own she went back to her own stew.
Ehlan stood up and moved around the small campsite quietly. She had been struggling to keep her eyes open for the last hour. She didn't think they still needed to set a guard, but Taura had insisted. Ehlan felt they were too close to Borcea to be set upon by thieves or their mysterious attackers. But she had to admit that Taura was right, better safe than sorry. She sighed and looked down at the calmly sleeping woman.
A faint smile drifted over Ehlan's lips as she looked at the woman that held her heart. Taura was sleeping soundly, a small frown working between her brows. Ehlan wondered what Taura was dreaming about. Was she dreaming of their future, when they would rule from Borcea, or was she dreaming about her family, her brother's betrayal? Ehlan's smile disappeared at the thought of Anel. Her blood boiled at what he had done what he was planning on doing. She knew that it was tearing Taura up inside. Her brother had sold his soul to Daimys. Ehlan knew that Taura blamed herself to an extent. The what ifs had started, what if she had come down from the mountain earlier, what if she had noticed her brother's dissatisfaction, what if she had never gone up the mountain. Ehlan knew that Taura was just torturing herself. She wished she could take it away, just take all the hurt and pain upon herself, to relieve Taura from its brutal grip. But the auburn haired woman had to face this alone. Taura had to fight these demons on her own. No matter how much Ehlan loved her, Taura had to face this alone.
Ehlan felt her heart swell with the emotion she felt for the other woman. Her eyes drank in the beloved features. Ehlan's mind raced with visions of the two of them parading through the streets of Borcea, on their way to the temple of the Triad, to speak their joining vows before the Priestess and the monarchs of the lower kingdoms. Just as quickly as the vision formed did it fade. She was reminded of another promise made. Another promise made to another woman.
Ehlan moved away from the sleeping form and walked the perimeter, mainly to keep from falling asleep. Her thoughts turned inward again. The Heir Princess knew that she had a problem. She had spoken to Serina before leaving for the North, asking the blond woman to join with her. Not for love, but to shore up the alliance with Titone. Serina was the King's cousin. Politics had ruled her decision. Politics and the desire to do something to please her mother had prompted her to promise herself to Serina.
Ehlan sighed and took another turn around the campsite, her eyes staring unseeing into the trees, peering though the darkness. For as far back as she could remember Ehlan had tried to please her mother. The Queen barely acknowledged her presence. Her duty as the Queen to produce an heir complete, the Queen ignored her child. It had been no secret in the court that Queen Maen had not wanted to Bond with Raeger, Ehlan's father. Maen had wanted Stefan, the eldest son of a Tibor family. But the Queen Mother had needed to solidify her hold on the Northern districts and Bonded Maen with the second son of a Royal Tibor family. Raeger had been as different from Stefan as night and day and Maen had resented him with everything she had. Raeger was serious man very well suited for the military duties that would befall the High General. Stefan was a courtier, very flamboyant and frivolous, better suited to court intrigues and affairs than the military. Stefan, after Maen had been joined with Raeger took a wife from a neighboring family and had never again come to Borcea. Maen had been furious and once Ehlan had been born Maen banished Raeger from Borcea, sending him to oversee the troops along the Border. She blamed him for Stefan's joining and resented him bitterly.
Ehlan had idolized her father and the infrequent visits when she was young had forged a bond between the two that not even distance could diminish. She missed him terribly and vowed to call him back from the Border as soon as things were straightened out with her mother.
Ehlan's mind drifted to hours spent in her room crying after being berated by her mother for the smallest thing. Ehlan being the brunt of the anger Maen could not release on Stefan. As a small child she used to wonder why her mother disliked her so. It was only when she was older did she realize that her mother resented her for not being the child of the man she loved. Ehlan could almost feel sorry for her mother, but after years of verbal abuse her heart refused to melt enough to do so.
Ehlan pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders. The night air was chilly. Ehlan could feel the crisp winter winds coming in. She shivered, more from the thought of what that meant then the cold. A noise caught her attention. Her eyes peered into the darkness as her hand slid down to touch the hilt of her sword. Other night sounds drifted to her. The sound of the fire popping, one of the horses snorting and moving aside filled the night. Her eyes could not penetrate the darkness. Another sound snapped her head in the opposite direction, a twig snapping as if under someone's feet. Ehlan's eyes narrowed as she tried to see into the dark shadows between the trees. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, she felt eyes on her. The hilt of her sword was a comfortable weight in her hand as she unsheathed the weapon. Turning her head to call back to Taura she never saw the shadow move and rush her.
The snap of a branch saved Ehlan's life. She turned just in time to raise her sword by force of habit to protect her from the downward swing of the woman in black leather. The ring of steel on steel filled the air. With a shout Ehlan parried the next thrust from the dark haired woman. She heard Taura's shout but was hard pressed to turn around.
Two men, both dressed like the woman in black leather soon joined Ehlan's attacker. Ehlan could not make out any insignias or any mark of rank. Once more assailants came out of the night.
Ehlan felt her arm grow heavy as she struggled to keep her three attackers away from her. One came too close to her and her elbow struck out, catching him squarely on the nose, causing him to cry out and stumble back.
"Ehlan!" shouted Taura.
Ehlan circled around to where she was could see Taura. Attackers of her own surrounded the auburn haired woman. Her staff was a blur as she expertly kept them at bay. A fourth assailant came out of the trees; stealthily moving toward Taura whose back was to him.
"Taura! Behind you!" Ehlan shouted. The words were barely out of her mouth when with a sickening crunch Ehlan fell to the ground. Another woman in black leather stood over her, a cudgel gripped tightly in her hand.
"Bind her, take her out of here," she said her voice harsh.
Her dead eyes flickered over to where the rest of the assailants were hard pressed to get to Taura. With an exasperated sigh, the woman made her way over to the group. Without a word she threw the cudgel, catching Taura on the shoulder. The staff in Taura's hands dipped and a sword slipped past her defenses. With a cry of pain Taura looked down in disbelief at the sword embedded in her stomach. Sighing out Ehlan's name Taura slid from the sword and fell to the ground, her blood quickly staining the dirt beneath her.
"Urra! Urra!" shouted Darilas. She sat up in her sleeping furs and quickly pushed them aside.
The guard outside her tent pushed open the flap and looked in, his eyes scouring the tent for a potential enemy.
"Get Urra and the Bonded Companion at once. And order the te-sudariem to make ready. We leave at once," the Carun ordered as she pulled on her gray boots. The guard saluted and ran from the tent. Darilas strapped on her sword and grabbed her staff and left the tent.
"Saddle my horse immediately," she ordered another guard. Darilas looked around the now awake camp impatiently.
"Darilas, what is it?" Urra asked coming from his own tent.
"We need to leave now, she is danger, I feel her life magic draining slowly," she imparted to him matter of factly. The Tunonien's face paled in the moonlight and he swallowed painfully. With a nod he turned and ran for his own tent, shouting out orders as he went.
"Darilas?" Baran questioned. His tunic was loose and open at the throat and hung down over his trousers.
"We must leave now!" she snapped. "She is dying. I feel her life energy draining." Without a word Baran ran toward his tent calling for his horse as he went.
Within in moments, horses had been saddled for roughly a third of the camp. As she mounted Darilas called out orders to the rest to follow as soon as they could. Without a backward glance Darilas led her small force up the mountain and into the darkness. Her heart was heavy as she spurned her horse to go faster.
"Carun, there are tracks up ahead. Two horses, going up an old woodcutters trail," a gray clad Tunonien scout told Darilas.
"How old?" she asked her voice grim. Her face looked gray in the moonlight.
"Hours, probably late afternoon," he answered. Darilas nodded and ordered him to go back out. With a salute he turned his horse and went back down the trail.
"Are we close?" Baran asked. Darilas looked at the man sitting on his horse next to her.
"Yes, but she is getting weaker," she looked around her mind working. "I think I can send enough healing energy to her to keep her alive for a few hours."
"Will that be enough time to find her?" Baran wanted to know. Darilas looked at him, her eyes shrouded by the dark; even so he knew they would be haunted.
"It will have to be," was the blunt answer.
They raced through the dark, relying on the Tunonien magic to guide them in the star filled night. Darilas pushed them hard, her face settling into a grim mask as her eyes searched for the dying woman that needed them.
Taura stared sightlessly at the stars twinkling above her. Around her she could hear their attackers talking quietly amongst themselves as they bound an unconscious Ehlan. She could feel her blood pooling underneath her. The pain was so intense it was numbing. She knew she dying, she could feel her strength ebbing out as her blood seeped from the wound beneath her hands.
The noises around her subsided as they moved off into the trees. Taura felt rather than saw someone crouch down next to her. She wanted to turn her head but couldn't.
"You'll be dead soon enough," a woman's voice said close to her ear. There was no emotion in the voice as it caressed her ear. Taura closed her eyes once and opened them again, frustrated that she could not seem to gather the will to turn to look at her tormentor. "You will go to the House of Bellus, knowing that we have her," and with that the voice left, leaving her alone.
Slowly the night air settled over her, as the normal sounds drifted to her, Taura felt tears begin to leak from her eyes. She didn't want to die, not yet. She wasn't afraid of death, but she didn't want to leave Ehlan in danger. Darkness crowded her vision as she felt the cold touch of death graze her. With a sigh and a final thought of Ehlan, Taura closed her eyes.
Taura felt herself floating, surrounded by nothingness there was no light, no darkness, she simply floated. The pain had subsided. Taura could feel nothing as time was suspended. She had no idea how long she had been floating; it could have been an hour or a day.
For the first time since discovering the bodies of her parents, Taura felt at peace. The anguish was gone the guilt had dissipated. She wondered idly if she had died yet. With a mental shrug she let herself float, emptying her mind of all thought.
Taura felt another presence in the nothingness, floating next to her, with another presence coming up along the other side of her.
"Well met Daughter," her father's voice sounded in her mind.
"Poppa, I think I'm dead. Is this the House of Bellus?" she asked her voice void of emotion.
"No child this is not Bellus' House, " her mother told her. Taura nodded.
"Well, it's true then, the magic I used was evil, Daimys has my soul," Taura said almost sadly.
"Taura girl, the Soul Stealer doesn't have your soul, " Gelen said almost sternly. "The magic you have is not evil. It was given to you by the Gods themselves."
"Am I Tunonien?" asked Taura, mildly curious.
"Yes, my child, you are, " Maura answered.
"Why did you keep that from me?" Taura wanted to know, but not sure why.
"To keep you safe, Taura girl. You have a task before you, a very difficult task. You must be ready, " Gelen said. Taura was silent as she floated through the abyss with her parents.
"What must I do Poppa?" she asked.
"You must go back, daughter, now is not your time, " her mother answered.
"But I don't want to leave you," Taura protested and gasped as a sharp pain in her abdomen penetrated the nothingness she floated in.
"We are never truly away from you Taura girl. Until we are Reborn, our souls are watching over you. You must go back now and prepare, for the time is almost upon you, " her father's voice drifted to her, it had faded as she slowly became aware of the ground beneath her.
"What is almost upon me?" Taura shouted. "It's time for what? Poppa? Mother? Please don't leave me! Please! Please don't leave me!" tears fell from her eyes and she reached out toward the sky, reaching for the comforting abyss.
Hands grabbed hers and pushed them down; she weakly fought against them, wanting to touch her parents, to feel them, to talk to them. Sobs tore at her throat as the pain of loosing them again gripped her. The wound, which had scabbed over while traveling with Ehlan ripped open, revealing to the night air the festering emptiness that had never quite healed. Taura cried out aching to touch them just once more. Her head shook back and forth as she shouted incoherently.
"How bad is it?" a man's voice drifted to her.
"Bad," a woman's firm voice answered him.
"Can you heal her?" he asked.
"I believe so. You must hold her though," the woman told him.
Taura felt something oddly comforting in the woman's voice. Something about they way she spoke gave an air of familiarity that penetrated Taura's grief.
"Hush now, little one, hush keile," she spoke softly near Taura's ear. Taura recognized the word as one her mother called her. She felt safe now and allowed the darkness that crowded around her to consume her.
"Will she survive?" Urra asked some time later, his voice choked with emotion.
The glow of magic still hung heavily over the area. The young woman lay sleeping peacefully after the Healing magic had been absorbed into her body.
"Yes, she will survive," Darilas answered her voice thick with weariness. She sat down next to the sleeping woman watching her chest rise and fall almost reverently. "She is the one, Urra," the Carun whispered. "Our Carussa has finally been returned to us."
"Praised be the Goddess," Urra spoke the benediction, bowing his head. "Praised be the Triad," he finished.
"She has the Khodr, the mark of the Sword and the Staff," Darilas looked up from the small birthmark over Taura's breast, her eyes boring into the eyes of the man standing next to her, tears in her eyes. "She has been returned to us," the Carun, managed.
Urra fell to his knees next to her and pressed his forehead to the ground. Darilas heard the familiar words of the prayer to the Triad. She turned her attention back to the woman sleeping next to her.
"Darilas! Darilas!" Baran ran up to her, gripping a sword in his hand. Even in the dark Darilas could see the wild look in his eyes. "This is Ehlan's! The Heir Princess has been here."
Darilas looked sharply at the sword before looking back at the sleeping woman. Another piece of the Prophecy was fulfilled.
"And the Carussa shall be delivered to the Blessed Tribe by the Blood, " Darilas spoke the words softly, formally.
"There was a fight," Baran continued, not registering what she said. "The Princess may have been kidnapped. We must find her," his voice was desperate as he imaged the things that Ehlan could be going through.
"Send out scouts to follow the tracks," Darilas ordered Urra. The auburn haired man nodded and stood easily. "We can move out shortly. She will be awake soon."
"Is this the one whose magic you sensed?" Baran asked looking down at the woman as well.
"Is she the one?" Baran was almost afraid of the answer.
"Yes, she is the one," was the answer he most dreaded and most wanted to hear.
Taura became aware of a buzzing in her ears first. Then she felt the warmth spreading from the amulet around her throat next. Before her eyes opened she became aware of voices above her. It was the man and woman that she heard before. Before a strange light had come over her and she lost all thought. She groaned and moved, struggling to sit up.
"Ehlan! Where's Ehlan?" she cried out looking around. A man came into her vision, a man with gleaming black hair and dark penetrating eyes. His hand gripped her shoulder.
"Ehlan? Do you know what happened to her?" he demanded.
Taura felt another person sink down, behind the man. Her hands went back to the blood soaked area on her tunic, her face puzzled as she felt around for the wound she knew to be there.
"We were attacked," Taura began, looking up at the man in front of her. He was easily the most beautiful man she had ever seen. "I tried to get to her, but there were too many of them," her voice rose with agitation. "What happened to me?" she asked looking down at the smooth skin beneath her hands. "What happened to my wound?"
"Darilas Healed you," the beautiful man answered distractedly. "Who were they?" the man asked harshly, leaning closer to Taura. She blinked rapidly, the words stunning her into silence.
"I don't know. But I think they were from Niam. One of the others wore a medallion, a tel'nath," Taura told him.
The man looked over his shoulder at the woman. When he looked back his face was pale, frightened. Her mind tried to grapple with the information he imparted. Taura looked over at the woman next to him, wondering if she was the one that had Healed her.
"You've been attacked before?" he wanted to know his voice was hard as he visibly struggled with his emotions.
"Yes, a few times, ever since we left Fadgon," Taura reluctantly said tearing her eyes away from the woman. She was sitting in the shadows; the early morning light not reaching her and Taura could not see her face.
"Darilas, this is not good news," the man turned to look at the presence next to him. The woman moved and the firelight hit her face, throwing it into detail.
Taura turned to follow his gaze and gasped. The woman's gray eyes were burning into hers, an inner fire consuming her. She was wearing sandy brown clothing. A man stood behind her dressed similarly. They each wore a thin beaten ring of metal around their upper arms. The woman also wore a bronze circlet around her forehead. There were markings etched into the metal.
The woman's eyes flickered over Taura; a look of profound reverence filled her features. The woman's hair was full and just a shade lighter than Taura's own. It was graying at the temples. There were wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and one between her brows that deepened as she frowned. She looked familiar to Taura; even though she knew she had never seen her before.
The man was tall and heavily muscular. His hands were battle scarred and he carried them as if permanently curled, to hold a sword or staff. Both were wearing amulets over their tunics, amulets that looked similar to the one Taura wore.
"No of course not, My Lord Baran," the woman said to him.
The woman's lilting musical voice struck a chord deep into Taura's heart. She formed the words of the Queen's tongue as if it was not her native language. Something about how she spoke reminded Taura of her parents. Taura's eyes widened in surprise when the name the woman had spoken registered.
"Baran?" she asked turning to look at the beautiful dark haired man. "You're Baran?" The man frowned.
"Yes, I'm Baran," he told her. "And you are?"
"I am Taura. I met Ehlan in Fadgon, the Queen's Army tried to kill her, I helped her escape and we have been traveling since then," Taura told him. Baran and Darilas shared a surprised look rocked to the core.
"The Queen's Army tried to kill the Heir Princess?" demanded Urra. Taura nodded and quickly told them how she had met Ehlan and their escape from Fadgon.
"Fadgon? What is a Tunonien doing so far north, where is your Carus?" Baran asked, hoping that she really wasn't who they thought she was. Taura frowned at the word. The sound of it filled her soul with light, and it seemed familiar, almost as if she should know what it meant.
"I don't understand," Taura said softly, a confused frown on her face.
"What is your name child?" the woman asked.
"My name is Taura tu'Muira," Taura answered.
"Who is your father?" the woman asked softly, her eyes burning into Taura's.
"His name was Gelen te'Muira." Taura answered promptly. Urra jerked his head back as if he had been slapped.
"Your mother?" Darilas' voice was stricken.
"Maura tu'Muira." The woman took a deep breath and visibly paled.
"Where are they now?" she finally managed.
"They're dead," Darilas groaned, her head falling, her chin on her chest as she took a deep breath.
"Darilas," Baran began concerned for her sudden pallor. Darilas waved a hand dismissing his concern. Baran took a deep breath and moved away, heading for the horses.
"Come child, are you able to stand?" Darilas questioned.
Taura nodded and stood carefully. She staggered a moment as a sudden wave of dizziness swept over her. It receded as quickly as it had come. Taura would have fallen if it had not been for the strong yet gentle grip of the tall woman who had stood with her. Taura looked at her, puzzled by the air of familiarity that surrounded the woman.
"We must travel quickly, the Heir Princess is in danger," Darilas told her.
Taura nodded and reluctantly pulled her eyes away from the tall woman. Taura felt such a pull of emotion whenever she looked at the woman that it almost frightened her.
"Do I know you?" Taura asked searching the other woman's face. The woman blanched slightly and visibly struggled to keep her emotions in check.
"No, keile, we have never met," Darilas answered her sadly. Taura was amazed at the profound sadness in the other woman's eyes.
"My mother used to call me that," Taura whispered softly stepping back away, her strength returning. She was fascinated by the play of emotions that played over the woman's face. A memory tugged at the back of her mind, begging to be remembered.
"Darilas!" Baran shouted running up to them. Both women looked at him. "The horses are ready and one of the scouts has returned."
Darilas nodded and with another look at Taura moved off into the direction of the tall red haired man standing near the horses. Taura followed.
The scout, his eyes widening in surprise when Taura joined them opened his mouth to answer Darilas but shut it without speaking. His eyes wild, the scout looked between Darilas and Taura, visibly trembling.
"Trevr," Darilas barked. "What have you found?" Trevr tore his eyes from Taura and looked at the Carun.
"The tracks lead higher up the mountain. We are not more than a half day behind them," he told Darilas, his voice shaking and full of emotion.
He kept sneaking glances at Taura as he spoke. Taura, her mind still reeling with the implications of being Healed and the words her parents had spoken to her. She longed for a quiet moment to sit and process all the information that had been thrown at her. But an overriding thought prevailed, Ehlan. That one thought took precedence over everything else.
"Very well," Darilas nodded grimly once. "Urra, strike the camp," she ordered softly. "Trevr, rejoin Mikkel, leave a trail for us, we will follow."
Darilas turned around her eyes quickly taking in the camp and the group of similarly dressed people. Taura turned away from following her gaze to find Baran's eyes on her. His eyes were dark and impenetrable. His face was devoid of emotion and Taura found herself wondering what he was thinking. Suddenly his face was transformed as a smile slid over his mouth.
"You've been traveling since Fadgon with Ehlan?" he asked, his voice smooth honey. Taura nodded and found herself smiling back at the man. He threw his head back and laughed. "I'll bet that was interesting. Ehlan having to do for herself," his laugh filled the air. Taura laughed with him, remembering fondly the first missteps that Ehlan had experienced. Just as suddenly as his mirth surfaced did it subside and his eyes grew worried. "We must find her."
"We will," Taura replied, her voice just as soft, yet filled with conviction. Baran nodded.
The trail they followed lead higher into the mountain in a treacherous, winding route. The higher they went the colder it got. For Taura the cold was barely noticeable. Having been raised in the Northern reaches of the kingdom she was used too much colder temperatures. The men and women clad in sand colored tunics and trousers though were having a much tougher time of it.
"How do you stand this cold?" Urra demanded wrapping his cloak tighter around his shoulders as they moved ever higher. Baran, riding in front of him, turned to look back at the miserable man.
"Is it not cold where you are from?" Taura, riding behind Urra asked innocently.
Baran's eyes snapped to her and silence fell as the others looked at her. Their expressions ranged from shock, to disbelief, with some looking at her with unabashed adoration shining from their eyes. Taura shifted uncomfortably in her saddle.
"Child, the Plains of Tunon are not so fortunate as to experience such cold temperatures," Darilas said softly. Taura turned to look at the woman that rode just behind her.
"Tunon?" she asked. "You really are from Tunon?" she questioned, her curiosity flaring.
Tunon was the mysterious place that was talked about in whispers. Her parents had taken great pains to keep her away from such talk. After the revelations of her parents her interest had peaked and she longed to know more.
"Yes, child, we are from Tunon," Darilas told her.
Taura felt Darilas' eyes boring into hers. She became uncomfortable with the attention and turned around. There was silence as they rode and Taura could feel the eyes of her companions still on her.
"We will stop here for the night," Darilas said much later. The weak daylight had melted into complete darkness. To continue on would be dangerous. Taura and Baran ground their teeth in frustration. They shared a look of impatience.
Taura stretched wearily after dismounting. Her eyes drifted down to the blood stained tunic she still wore. With a sigh she began loosening the saddle from her tired mount. A silent Tunonien appeared at her shoulder.
"Please Carussa, allow me," the woman said.
Taura started and jerked back, almost as if a current had run through her. Her eyes were wild. The word, unfamiliar to her had sent a surge coursing through her. A shout drew her attention away from the woman. Darilas rattled off words in a musical language Taura had never heard before. The woman standing next her flushed and lowered her head. Darilas moved to stand in front of the woman, her voice lowered but Taura could tell by the tone that the woman was being reprimanded. The woman nodded once and with an apologetic look at Taura she moved away, leading Taura's horse.
"My apologies, Taura," Darilas said softly, her eyes not meeting Taura's.
"What did she call me?" Taura questioned.
"It is of no matter, Taura, she was being imprudent," Darilas said, she looked up and her eyes locked into Taura's. "Now is not the time to discuss that, we must find the Heir Princess first," she said.
"But Darilas, I've heard that word before," Taura protested. Something in her needed to know. Something inside her longed to hear the word again, to feel the blood sing in her ears at the sound of it.
"It is of no matter, Taura," Darilas repeated.
"But," Taura began.
"It is not safe at this time," Darilas finally said. Taura frowned not understanding.
"That word is very powerful, and for you to hear it again while you are unprotected would be dangerous," Darilas explained, her eyes burning with that inner fire.
Something in Taura understood and she reluctantly nodded. The woman returned and handed Taura the saddlebag. With her eyes still downcast the woman turned away.
"Is there something I can do?" Taura asked looking around at the others quickly setting up camp. Darilas studied her intently.
"No, there is a stream, just over there, would you like to wash up?" the woman asked. The thought of being clean was suddenly very attractive to Taura.
"Yes, thank you," Taura shouldered the bag, gripped her staff, settled her sword on her back and moved off. She was surprised when Darilas fall in beside her.
The women remained silent as they carefully picked their way through the trees. Taura could hear the soft babble of the stream as they neared it. With water so close, her skin began to itch, reminding her of just how dirty she was. At the stream she dropped her bag and sighed with relief.
Taura glanced over at Darilas before lifting the ruined tunic over her head. The older woman was standing at the edge of the stream, looking down at the water as if there was something interesting under the surface.
"I think it might be deep enough for you to bathe," she said over her shoulder, before turning back to the water. Taura quickly divested herself of the rest of her clothing. The desire to be clean overrode her modesty.
Taura stepped into the cold water and shivered as gooseflesh erupted over her body. The stream diverted to a small pool before continuing on down the mountain. The pool wasn't very deep, but it was deep enough for Taura to submerse herself. Taura heard her name being called and she looked up in time to see Darilas toss her a small soap cake. She easily caught it and went about washing away the blood and grime.
Taura finished washing and stood easily. The cold mountain air slammed into causing her to shiver. She longed for Ehlan's arms to be around her, warming her. Sadness settled around her like a cloak and she pushed it aside as she reached her bag. Quickly she pulled out fresh clothes and dressed silently.
"Darilas," she began, before the word was finished it ended in a strangled gasp. Darilas turned around her eyes searching Taura in the dark.
Taura stood her hands at her throat, grabbing at unseen hands. Her eyes were full of panic as she fought for breath. Darilas' senses felt magic tingle at the edges of her mind. Tainted, evil magic pushed at her senses. Magic was attacking the other woman. With a growl she ran to Taura's side.
The Carun of the Tunonien threw her arms wide and her head back. Her voice rose to the Heavens, calling upon the Triad to give her magic strength to fight the evil that was attacking Taura. Panic threatened to overwhelm her, but she pushed it forcibly from her. She could not fail, the woman fighting invisible hands was too important to fail. Darilas felt her magic fill her. Her head snapped down and her eyes glowed with fire.
Words fell from her lips as she spoke to the Triad, energy crackled from her fingertips. Her glowing eyes took in the black, sibilant cloud that surrounded Taura. It pulsated as it choked the air from her. Darilas, her eyes narrowing dangerously, shot out one hand, palm first. A bolt of energy shot from her palm and slammed into the black cloud, encasing it with light. Taura sank to her knees, her fingers still clutching at air, her eyes wild as she struggled for air. The Tunonien magic attacked the black cloud, pulling it away from Taura. With a loud ripping sound the cloud pulled away and dissipated just as quickly as it appeared. Taura fell forward gasping for air. Darilas squatted down next to the younger woman as she choked weakly.
"Taura," she cried out, her voice thick with worry.
She pulled Taura over so she was on her back. Her chest heaved as she drug in air. Taura's eyes remained closed. Darilas moved her hands over Taura's body; a different glow encased her hands, healing magic. Taura's breathing became slower, deeper, more relaxed. Darilas took a deep calming breath of her own and realized her heart was pounding against her chest.
"What happened?" Taura rasped her voice rough. Her eyes fluttered open to see the panic stricken ones above her. Darilas blinked and the panic subsided.
"You were attacked by magic," Darilas told her bluntly.
"Magic!" Taura asked surprised. "Why would the Tunonien attack me?" she wanted to know, as she struggled to sit up. Darilas flinched and sat back on her heels.
"It was not Tunonien magic," Darilas told Taura, her voice filled with pain at the thought.
She reminded herself that Taura was not raised as a Tunonien.
"It was dark magic, the magic of Niam," was the blunt answer. Darilas stood, still angry and hurt that Taura thought the attack had come from a Tunonien. Taura sat up slowly.
"Niam?" she asked her voice small. "Daimys?" she stood up and touched Darilas' arm, turning the other woman to face her.
"Yes, the Soul Stealer, his followers are the only ones that use dark magic," Darilas answered, her face was in the shadows and Taura could not see her face.
"By the Gods, Anel," Taura whispered, stricken. She dropped her hand and stepped back. Darilas frowned.
"Anel?" she questioned. Taura turned away, her eyes staring unseeing off into the distance.
"Yes, Anel, my brother," Taura told Darilas. The older woman stepped closer to Taura.
"Your brother?" her voice was tight, her heart began to pound fast again.
"Yes," Taura nodded, as guilt and agony flooded through her. The thought that Anel would try to kill her with magic had never occurred to her.
"Why would you think your brother did this?" Darilas demanded, fearful of the answer.
"Because he killed our parents and gave his soul to Daimys," Taura said in a rush, getting the words out quickly, in the hopes that they would hurt less.
Darilas' head snapped back and she rocked back. The Prophecy slammed into her, leaving absolutely no doubt in her mind.
Darilas was silent as they walked back to the camp. Her thoughts were racing as the words to the Prophesy filled her. All the pieces were falling in place and she was afraid they would not have enough time to prepare Taura for her task. Her mind was also reeling from Taura's story. Darilas hid her tears as Taura described finding her parents. The boy she knew dying in such a manner pained her deeply.
"Trevr is back, Carun," a red haired Tunonien told Darilas as the two women entered the small clearing. Darilas nodded. "He is with Urra and the Companion at your tent."
"Thank you. Come Taura, we have much to discuss," Darilas said softly to the younger woman. Taura nodded and followed the grim woman.
"Report Trevr," Darilas ordered as she strode up to the three men standing over a small folding table in her tent.
The large tent was furnished with a few chairs and a sleeping pallet beside the table. On the table was a map of the region. Baran looked up briefly, his eyes flickering between the two women before going back to the map before him.
"They went into the city," the scout said briefly. His blue gray eyes moved over Taura, the curiosity about her still in them. Taura was uncomfortable with all the attention, but something in her told her that this was where she belonged. The feeling intrigued her but she didn't fight it.
"The city?" Darilas asked clearly surprised. The rumors about the Queen's state of mind were beginning to make sense. Darilas shared a look with Baran, seeing that he too was thinking the same thing.
"Yes, they entered by the mountain gate," Trevr answered, nodding his head. "They bribed the guard and entered the city."
"Bribed the guard?" Taura asked surprised. Baran looked up from the map and Urra turned his eyes toward her, his face blank.
"Yes, Car," Trevr began but was silenced by a word barked at him by Darilas. He cleared his throat nervously. "Yes, they bribed the guard."
"But why would they bribe the guard? Wouldn't he have recognized Ehlan?" Taura wanted to know. Ehlan's blond hair was very distinctive and identified her better than any of her other trappings.
"They paid the guard not to," Baran answered simply. Taura was shocked. This was a guard that served the Throne, a guard that had sworn to protect the Queen and the Heir Princess. Then Taura remembered the members of the Queen's Army that had tried to kill Ehlan in Fadgon.
"Is everything for sale in Borcea?" she asked harshly, her eyes burning into Baran's.
"Just about," was his answer.
"Trevr," Darilas said pulling Taura's attention away from Baran. "Were you able to find out where they went after they went into the city?"
"Yes Carun," Trevr answered his voice grave. "They went to the Palace."
"The Palace?" Darilas questioned her eyes wide in surprise.
"Yes, the Palace."
"Baran, what does this mean?" she asked the Bonded Companion.
"It can mean any number of things," Baran shrugged. "It could mean that the rumors are true and that Maen is setting Ehlan aside. Ehlan's supporters have been arrested on flimsy excuses recently as you know," he told them.
"Or it could mean that someone in Borcea is a servant to Daimys," Urra said bluntly. The Tunonien warrior was always quick to believe that the Soul Stealer was behind everything.
"Impossible!" Baran shouted angrily, his face flushed. He could not believe that anyone in the greatest city would have sold their soul to Daimys. Even as he denied it a part of him could not ignore Taura's account of the assassins. Someone had to have sent them.
"These are strange times My Lord Companion, anything is possible," Darilas stated softly her mind whirling with the thought.
"The Lefor would know if there was a strong hold of Daimys' servants," Baran insisted, naming the Queen's secret intelligence agency. "I would have been informed of their presence," he told them. Baran had been acting High General since his bonding ceremony with Ehlan. Her father, the High General had been dispatched to the Border many years ago and seldom was in residence.
"Unless the information was not passed on to you," Taura supplied. All eyes turned to her. "Isn't it possible that someone on the High Council is a servant to Daimys?"
"I refuse to believe that!" shouted Baran, slamming a fist down on the table. Taura looked at him with sympathy.
"I can understand your anger Baran," she told him softly. Baran turned his eyes to Taura, his eyes burning into hers. His anger seemed to leave him.
"Urra, we leave in two hours time, the horses should be rested by then," Darilas ordered. The man nodded. "Call the te-sudariem together, we have much to prepare. They will go back and enter Borcea from the city gates, and join the te-sudariem already at the Palace. You will go with them. Trevr, Baran, Taura and I will go into Borcea from the mountain gate," she told him. The te-sudariem were the fighting clans that had been sent to the Palace. Urra frowned deeply.
"But Carun is that wise?" he wanted to know his eyes flickered to Taura. The younger woman couldn't help but think that his question was somehow about her.
"We don't know what the situation is in Borcea," Darilas said. "We can move in secret, and maybe locate the Heir Princess."
"Joli can get us into the Palace without attracting attention," supplied Baran.
"Joli?" Taura asked.
"Ehlan's cousin," Baran told her.
"I don't like this Darilas," Urra growled, his scowl deepening.
"Urra," Darilas began.
"No, this is insane! We can not risk it," Urra interrupted angrily. His face grew red as he moved to stand in front of Darilas. The taller woman spat out a word in that strange musical language that Taura was beginning to yearn to hear. Urra's mouth shut loudly.
"Please excuse us, My Lord Companion," Darilas said turning to Baran. The Bonded Companion nodded and Darilas turned and strode out of her tent followed by a sullen Urra.
"What was that all about?" Taura asked once the other two had left.
"Tunonien business," Baran answered flatly. He looked back down at the map on the table. Taura looked at Trevr who stood near the tent flap, almost as if he was guarding the entrance. He didn't look at her.
"Baran," Taura said moving to stand opposite the man. Baran looked up questioning. "Earlier you called me a Tunonien, why?" she asked. Baran's eyes flickered nervously to the silent Trevr before looking back at Taura.
"You had never seen a Tunonien before have you?"
"Well," he sighed. "You have the look of their race. Tall, high cheekbones fine features. The color of your eyes and hair are predominately found amongst the Tunonien. They all have either gray or blue eyes, and different shades of red and auburn hair. The straight nose, slightly flared nostrils, the almond shaped eyes; these are all characteristics of the Tunonien. Your skin tone, everything about you, is Tunonien. The way you move, everything."
"I look just like my parents," Taura said softly, almost to herself. "Do you think they were from Tunon? I thought no Tunonien would live elsewhere." Baran looked at her his eyes unreadable.
"They don't. And I don't know if your parents were from Tunon. Maybe you are distantly related to the Tunonien."
"But you don't believe that do you?" Taura wanted to know. Baran stood up and looked across the table at Taura.
"No," he shook his head. "No, I don't," silence filled the tent as Taura digested his answer. Her mind swirled with so many questions that she couldn't form the words.
"Trevr, change your horse and be ready to travel in two hours time," Darilas ordered coming back into the tent, preventing Taura from giving voice to the questions that begged to be answered. Baran, relieved, moved his attention to Darilas. Trevr nodded and with a salute left the tent.
"Taura, a tent has been prepared for you. I suggest you get some rest before we move out," Darilas said turning her eyes to the younger woman.
"But," Taura began, looking back at Baran, wanting to continue the conversation with him. Baran did not meet her gaze.
"I insist, Taura," was the firm request. With a sigh, Taura found herself obeying Darilas.
"Is this wise Darilas?" Baran asked once they were alone in the tent.
"She will be safe with us," was the answer. Darilas moved over to the table.
"How can we be sure? If she is who you think she is, and if what we believe to be true is happening at the Palace, we could be bringing her into danger."
"We will be able to protect her," insisted Darilas calmly. "Now that we have found her, we have no intention of loosing her," Darilas looked up at Baran, her eyes filled with conviction.
"Darilas," Baran began.
"No, Baran, I can not entrust her safety to anyone. I can protect her until she learns to protect herself," Darilas was adamant. Baran sighed and nodded, knowing he would not win this battle.
The four of them set out a few hours later. Darilas and Baran each wore a grim look as they rode. Taura looked between the two wondering what had transpired in the tent after she had left. She looked at Trevr and the other just shrugged and turned his attention forward. Taura rode silently her mind trying to sort out all the thoughts and feelings that were bombarding her. The auburn haired woman pushed all those thoughts aside and focused on one, Ehlan.
They moved along the trail slowly, carefully picking their way closer and closer to the city. Taura let her mind drift and followed the horse in front of her. Suddenly she tensed. Taura would never be able to say what warned her, maybe it was some slight disturbance in the air, but something in her blood sang out to her and she turned her head, and with a quick move of her hand snatched an arrow out of the air.
"Behind!" shouted Trevr, whirling his horse around.
Darilas with her sword drawn pushed her way toward Taura, getting between her and the wooded area where the arrow had come from. Baran drew his sword and followed Trevr. The sounds of swords ringing reached Taura as she too unsheathed her sword.
Black clad assassins poured out of the trees heading straight for Taura. Darilas grimly met the attack trying to get her horse between Taura and the assassins. Frowning Taura moved her horse rushing to meet the first attacker head on. These were the people that had taken Ehlan.
"Taura! No!" Darilas shouted fighting off her own attacker.
Darilas watched in horror as Taura was pulled from her horse. Taura was on her feet immediately her sword swinging easily fending off her attacker. Darilas quickly dispatched the leather-clad warrior in front of her. Another took his place. Darilas felt her heart start to race, in fear, as Taura pushed ever closer toward Baran and Trevr who were surrounded. She dared not use her magic, as she didn't want to call attention to any dark servants in the area, the earlier magic attack on Taura still fresh in her mind.
"Baran! Behind you!" Taura called out, sliding her sword deep into the chest of a grim faced warrior.
Her heart cried for the life she had taken, but pushed her guilt aside. She vowed to pray to the Triad for their souls later. Right now she had to reach Baran. She knew that Darilas was right behind her.
Baran got his sword around just in time, parrying the thrust easily. He gave her a nod in thanks before turning his attention away. The battle raged fiercely as the four of them stove to fight them off. There were about ten leather-clad warriors. They silently fought, never once sharing information, never once calling out to each other. Taura found their silence unnerving. They fought hard and died just as silently.
"Taura! Watch!" Darilas shouted, near panic.
An assassin had maneuvered behind them and approached Taura. The auburn haired woman turned getting her sword up, but not completely in time, deflecting it slightly. A searing pain shot through her arm as the sword sliced deep into the muscle. Her sword dropped, as she lost feeling in the arm. The man's eyes gleamed in triumph as he drew back his sword preparing to strike the killing blow. Taura tensed and struggled to raise her sword to protect herself. The man's eyes widened and his mouth opened and with a sigh he lowered his sword and looked down at the sword point sticking out of his chest. He looked up at Taura again and with another sigh dropped his sword and crumpled to the ground. Taura looked up at Darilas, the woman's bloody sword drawing her attention.
"Are you alright?" Darilas asked Taura, her eyes wild. She looked around; the bodies of their silent attackers lay near them. Baran and Trevr were quickly finishing up the last two.
"Yes," nodded Taura looking down at the wound on her arm. It was bleeding heavily.
Darilas dropped her sword and moved over to Taura. Her nimble fingers probed the wound carefully. It was deep and still bleeding. Darilas sighed heavily and spoke a few words softly. A glow engulfed her fingers and seeped into the wound. As Taura watched in wonder the wound sealed, healing instantly.
"By the Goddess," she breathed in wonder. She looked up in awe. Darilas looked at her, her eyes unreadable. "Darilas, by the Goddess," Taura said, unable to form any other words.
"Taura," Darilas began.
"I did this to Ehlan, didn't I?" Taura asked. Darilas' eyes pinned hers.
"Yes, you did," she answered. Taura nodded.
"I'm Tunonien, aren't I?" Darilas didn't answer right away. Finally she nodded.
"Yes, Taura you are," was the answer.
Something moved deep in Taura's chest and answers came to her. Things made sense and the words of the Prophesy rang in her ears. Taura looked up at Darilas, her eyes wide as the truth slammed into her. As Darilas watched a myriad of emotions passed over Taura's face. Darilas could almost read the thoughts as they flickered through Taura's mind.
"It's not true," whispered Taura, her eyes wide and unbelieving. Her mind supplied the missing information, but she was afraid to believe it.
"Yes Carussa," Darilas said, solemnly, using the title for the first time. Taura shook her head.
"Don't call me that!" Taura shouted taking a step back, her eyes frightened. "Please don't call me that," she almost begged. "It can't be true," Taura shook her head.
"It is who you are, Carussa," Darilas said calmly. Taura shook her head again.
"Please don't let this be true," Taura cried. She had heard enough of the Prophesy to know who the Carussa was. As her mind warred with the information, her heart knew the truth of the words. "I, uh, I this can't be true," she whispered, staggered by the implications.
"It is true, and all of Tunon will rejoice, for the Carussa, has returned," Darilas said reverently.
Taura looked at Darilas, willing her to take back what she said. Even as she prayed for it not to be true she knew it was. Her destiny had found her.
The four of them set out again after rounding up their horses. The little known trail lead them closer to the city, but towards a little used entrance at the back of the city gate that encircled the city proper itself. The gate was small and entered into a less than savory section of the city. The two guards paid little attention to the two women, especially after Baran gave them each a gold coin. Taura frowned disapprovingly, but Baran just shrugged and they continued on their way. The four moved slowly through narrow cobble stoned streets. At Baran's lead they kept the hoods of their cloaks up to conceal their faces. Even so, the city dwellers moving through barely paid any attention to the four of them.
After a while they came to an inn. The sign was hanging crooked, swinging slightly. There was a sullen boy dressed in a patched tunic leaning against the wall.
"Boy, take our horses to the stable and see that they are fed and cared for," Baran ordered his voice soft. Baran tossed the boy a silver coin. They dismounted and handed over the reins to the ragged boy.
"How do we know he won't steal them?" Taura asked, watching the boy as he made his way to the stable next to the inn. Baran led the way toward the door.
"Because, I paid him not to," was the simple answer.
"Everything is for sale in Borcea," Taura said almost sadly.
"Just about," Baran went into the inn. Looking around he was satisfied that it was relatively empty. A few grizzled men sat around staring deep into cups of ale. Darilas and Trevr studied the room with steely eyes. Baran sat at a table deep into the room. He sat with his back to the wall, his eyes on the door. Trevr called for food and wine. The four were silent till the serving girl had left.
"The first thing we need to do is get a message to Joli," Baran finally said between bites of fragrant stew. Darilas nodded awkwardly.
Taura got the impression that she was not comfortable conversing during a meal. Once Baran finished his stew he looked around and called out to the innkeeper that stood behind a long wooden counter.
"I need a message delivered." The Bonded Companion told him.
"I'll send my boy over ta ya," he said gruffly, turning he called out.
"Ya sent fa me?" asked the young boy they had given their horses to. Baran smiled at him.
"Yes, boy, go to the Lion's Roar and deliver a message for me," he told the boy. "Fetch me paper and ink." The boy scampered off to do his bidding.
"How will we get into the Palace?" Darilas asked.
"It will depend on Joli," Baran answered just as the boy returned. Baran wrote quickly. He handed the paper back to the boy and gave him a coin. "You give this to no one but a man in all black who has a scar that runs from his cheek to the corner of his mouth. Once he reads it, bring him here. When you get back I will have a gold crown for you." The boy's eyes widened and he took off at a run. Baran laughed as he watched him go.
The four lapsed into an uneasy silence as they waited for the man that Baran had sent for. Baran stared morosely into his wine goblet, every so often taking a sip. Darilas and Trevr watched the room, almost anticipating an attack. Taura watched the two silent people in sand colored clothing. There was something about Darilas that struck a chord of familiarity with Taura. Maybe it was how she moved, or how she formed words, or even the color of her hair. What ever it was Taura felt that somehow she knew this woman, and that fascinated her. As she watched Trevr leaned in to whisper something close to the woman's ear. Taura caught the faint sound of the musical language the other two spoke. Once again the sound of it sent a secret thrill racing toward her. As she listened Darilas cocked her head, and the move was so familiar it sent a pang straight through Taura's heart.
"Are you sure we have never met?" Taura asked with a slight frown, still uncertain. Darilas looked at her, her own eyes unreadable.
"I am most certain that we have never met Taura," Darilas' voice was filled with quiet certainty. Despite her familiarity Taura believed what Darilas was telling her. They lapsed back into silence as they waited. It was almost an hour later when the boy returned, with a scowling black haired man trailing him.
He was dressed in black leather breeches, high black boots and a tight leather shirt. A black handled sword rode low on his lean hips. An air of danger seemed to follow him. His quick, pale eyes flickered over the room once. Taura was sure he saw everything with that quick glance. His mouth was set in a firm, unsmiling line. The vivid scar caught her attention. It was thin, jagged, white, showing off the olive skin. The boy ran ahead, collected his coin and left. Only then did the man in black stride over to their table.
"Long way from the Palace," he said in a soft deadly voice, his eyes pinning into Baran's. His tone sent shivers down Taura's spine. Baran just grinned broadly.
"Nice to see you too cousin," the man went still. If that was possible, he was nothing if not deadly still. Suddenly a warm laugh bubbled up from his chest, sounding out of place on this grim man in black. He quickly scooped Baran into a rough embrace.
"You sure are a sight!" he said looking the Bonded Companion over. "Innkeep!" He shouted over his shoulder. "More wine! And ale for myself!"
"You look well," Baran said sitting down. The man pulled a chair from a neighboring table and followed suit his eyes flickering over the other three.
"Better'n you," he laughed again. Taura could not believe the transformation. "But then again, I was always prettier than you."
"That you are cousin, that you are," Joli looked at Baran, his pale eyes, almost colorless. "Cousin this is Taura. Taura this is the best sneak, thief, liar and horse thief in the six kingdoms. And this is Darilas and Trevr," Baran introduced, omitting titles. Joli nodded to the two Tunonien.
"Quit flattering me," he grinned. "Tes' muis Valeus," he said to Taura. "You are a far way from home." Taura gave a start at the foreign words.
The words again seemed to sing to her, her blood roared in her ears. Something inside told her that the words were a greeting.
"Tes' muis Valeus, " she answered him.
Darilas' eyes widened stunned at the sound of her peoples language on Taura's tongue. They were silent as the serving girl placed a tankard of ale in front of the man in black.
"She saved Ehlan from some trouble in the District of Maynor," Baran told the dark man softly. Joli took a drink before saying anything else.
"Lots of rumors going around boy," he said softly.
"I heard. But she is not trying to take the throne from her mother."
"Shame, that's how Maen got her throne," Joli shrugged. "Lots of swords would follow Ehlan."
"The Queen's Army tried to kill her," Baran told the man his voice low. Joli's eyes became hard. "She has been taken," Baran said flatly.
"Tell me," he demanded. Quickly Baran told him everything he knew, including some of Taura's story. Joli's eyes flickered to Taura, his eyes speculative.
"It's started then. You know the small moon rose red for three days," at Baran's nod he sighed. "I was hoping we would have more time."
"More time?" Taura questioned.
"So did I," Baran agreed, not answering Taura. "I was actually hoping it was a tale to frighten small children."
"More time for what?" Taura asked again looking between the two people. Trevr and Darilas stayed silent.
"No it's all true. Niam has been readying themselves for years for this. Your Tunonien here can tell you that," he jerked his head in Taura's direction. Taura was too stunned to reply.
"Has anyone seen the Queen?" Baran asked quickly, his eyes avoiding Taura's.
"Not lately. All orders are coming through High Councilor Maybor. Seems he won the council from Ferran," Joli grinned humorlessly. Most of the soldiers in the garrison in Fadgon were from his District. They would most likely have more loyalty for Maybor then the Queen. Three full te- sudariem arrived today," Joli imparted.
"Good, can you get us into the Palace?" Baran wanted to know.
"Why not have her Carus let her in?" Joli asked looking over at Taura again.
"My what?" Taura asked frowning. Joli looked surprised at her answer.
Taura could tell he was not used to the emotion. His eyes moved over Darilas and Trevr again, widening. He said something to her in that soft almost melodious language he greeted her with. The sound of it quickened Taura's pulse. She looked at him blankly. Joli's eyes widened even more.
"It truly has come to pass," he whispered, his face pale.
Joli made the sign of the Triad. His left hand pressed to his heart, the third finger and the thumb folded over. Three fingers showing, indicating the Three Gods, the missing one symbolizing the banished Dark God. Taura frowned and looked at Darilas who returned her look steadily. Joli drained his tankard, his hand shaky. Wiping the back of his hand over his mouth he raised his tankard again signally his need for more.
"Is there more news from the Palace cousin?" Baran wanted to know. Joli took a deep ragged breath, his eyes flickering over at the pale Taura.
"Not really, just the usual murmurings. Your presence has been eagerly awaited," Joli told Baran as a fresh tankard was set before him. "But the rumors of your imminent arrest are still circulating. I think it is just a ruse put out by Maybor though," the dark man said his composure returning.
"Why do you say that?" Baran asked.
"Because, you have too much support within the Queen's Army. I don't think he has enough support yet to take that on. But it is only a matter of time," he answered. Baran nodded and sipped his wine. "There is another thing though," Joli's eyes flickered over Taura uneasily again.
"What?" Baran wanted to know. A sudden anxiety gripped him. Joli took a deep breath and looked fully at Baran.
"Maen has signed a death warrant for Ehlan," was the soft answer. Baran sat back stunned, rocked to the core. He had not believed it had gotten that far. Darilas and Trevr shared a look before looking at Taura again. Darilas frowned as her mind worked over the implications.
"She has signed a death warrant?" Taura asked her voice stricken, her face pale. Joli nodded.
"Just this week, Maybor announced it in the square. He was positively gleeful," Joli imparted bitterly. Baran still seemed too stunned to reply.
"Darilas," Baran turned to the older woman, his eyes blazing. Darilas raised her eyes from the tabletop, her mind obviously elsewhere.
"My Lord Companion, this changes things," her voice was filled with pain. Baran took a deep sigh, fearing that answer. Taura frowned and looked between them, not understanding.
"Changes what? What does it change?" she demanded.
"With the signing of her death warrant Ehlan is no longer Heir Princess, which makes Baran no longer Bonded Companion so the oath by the Tunonien is no longer valid," Joli told Taura.
"Oath?" Taura looked over at Darilas and Trevr, both looked uncomfortable.
"Yes, the Tunonien swear an oath of loyalty to the High Blood Throne and the High General. The oath is to the Throne not who sits it. With the death warrant, Maen has set aside Ehlan, meaning she is no longer Heir Princess, which means that Baran is no longer acting High General," Joli explained. Taura's mind moved over what he was saying.
"That is why Maybor was so gleeful and why my arrest warrant has not been issued," Baran said bitterly.
"So the Tunonien would side with Maen and Maybor in this?" demanded Taura looking accusingly at Darilas and Trevr. Trevr could not meet her gaze. Darilas though looked at her steadily, almost seeming to be waiting for something from her.
"They are bound by their oaths Taura. They do not swear loyalty to the person, only the Throne," Baran said. He looked over at Darilas sadly before standing up. "Come on Joli, I need you to get me into the Palace, I need to find Ehlan." Joli nodded and stood as well.
"Wait! You're going?" Taura demanded to know. She looked at Darilas and Trevr, waiting for one of them to stop Baran.
"Yes, we need to find Ehlan before it is too late," Baran answered. "Times have been difficult lately Taura," he began softly. "The Queen has been, well different, shall I say. She has ordered men killed for no other reason than because of the color of their robes. She has been increasingly eccentric of late. More and more death warrants have been issued, some for no reason. All the Advisors, Palace staff and the High Council have been treading carefully around her.
"Maybor has used this to further his ambitions. Anyone, who openly works against him, has found himself with a price on his head, warrants signed by the Queen herself. He whispers to her of slights made by these people and of plots to remove her from the Throne. Whole families have been tortured and executed, women raped, entire neighborhoods put to death, all at the Queen's order," Taura listened in horror. "It has been rumored lately that the Queen is with child, and this child is to be the Heir. She has set aside her Bonded Companion, Ehlan's father. Maybor is said to be the unborn child's father. The Queen herself signed Ehlan's execution order," Baran's voice and eyes were sad. "We must find her before it is too late. I can't allow her to be executed!" He turned to leave with Joli following behind him.
"Wait!" her voice stopped them. The two men turned back to her.
Taura turned to the still silent Darilas. Taura stood up as well, her eyes pinning Darilas. Taura had fought what Darilas had told her, what the spirits of her parents had told her, but now she knew she could no longer fight it. She had to believe, she had to embrace what they were giving her, for to do nothing, to stand by and continue to struggle with the knowledge of her birthright could be the death of the woman who held her heart. Taura took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. Darilas watched as the transformation came over the young woman. Standing before her, suddenly was the Carussa of her people and her heart soared.
"You believe I am who you say?" Taura asked challengingly. Baran looked at her with a frown. Darilas nodded slowly. "Then your oaths do not matter, for I say we are to help the Bonded Companion rescue the Heir Princess," she ordered her voice firm with conviction.
Taura looked and sounded like a woman who expected her orders to be followed. A ghost of a smile drifted over Darilas' lips before she too stood with Trevr raising just a fraction of a moment behind her.
The two, as one bowed deeply to her, placing an open palm, first on their breast then their forehead. The movement caused Taura's blood to sing and a feeling of rightness fell over her.
"As you command, Carussa," Darilas agreed softly. Joli and Baran shared a triumphant smile.
"So I guess the rumor that Maybor intends to name himself High General doesn't really matter now does it?" Joli asked with a grin.
"No, I guess it doesn't," Baran agreed.
Joli lead the four of them through the maze of streets back toward the Palace. Taura studied the dark man as the silence stretched between them. He had not so much as looked at her since they had left the inn, but Taura could tell he was very aware of her presence. Joli seemed aware of everything around him. His eyes seemed never to stop moving as he studied their surroundings. Joli's hand never strayed far from his sword, ready to draw it at any sign of danger.
Suddenly, from around a corner came a squadron of foot soldiers. They barely glanced at them. They headed in the direction that the two had just come from.
"Those soldiers came from the garrison at High Councilor Maybor's residence," Joli told them.
"Who exactly is he?" Taura wanted to know.
"He's a High Councilor and Queen's advisor," Joli related simply. "He issued the warrants for Ehlan's supporters."
Taura was silent, taking in that information as they rode along. The sun was slowly setting and every once in awhile Taura thought she caught sight of the ocean. She hoped that sometime later she would get the chance to see it up close. Joli lead them confidently through the darkening streets.
"Are you Baran's cousin as well?" Taura asked Joli.
She could no longer stand the silence between them. Taura wanted to fill the silence so that she would not have to think about the responsibility she had taken on her shoulders back at the inn. Taura also felt lost disoriented, like she had misplaced something. Since she had met Ehlan they had not been apart and now Taura felt her absence keenly.
"Actually, I am a distant cousin of Ehlan's father's," was the reply. Taura nodded and fell quiet, not knowing what more to say. She was at a total loss on how to react to the strange silent man.
"Tell me about your father," Joli asked suddenly. Taura looked up surprised. She took a deep breath as she got her thoughts under control. The others stayed silent, but Taura could tell that they were listening.
"He was a good, honest man," she began. "He taught us how to work hard, to work the land and how to take care of ourselves. He taught us to treat all the Triad's creations with respect and honor ourselves as well as others. He taught us to be kind and just."
"Did he teach you how to use the sword and the staff?" Joli asked his question oddly formal. Out of the corner of her eye Taura felt Darilas stiffen.
"He taught us to defend ourselves. He told us; the true measure of a person's worth was measured in how they used their weapons. On if they used them for defense or for the pleasure of the fight. He didn't believe in violence, he told us that violence should always be your last resort. He said it took a braver person to walk away than to fight."
"He sounds like a brave man."
"He was, very much so. I loved him very much," Taura said softly, her eyes on a past not so far gone.
"Had he seen a lot of fighting?"
"I never thought so as I was growing up. But as I got older and he began to teach us, I saw a weary, bitter, look in his eye. I think maybe he saw things that upset him. Things that he never wanted his children to see," she sighed bitterly. "And yet, it was his son that took his life."
The two fell silent; each lost in their own thoughts as they moved through the streets that were still filled with people moving about on errands. The cries of merchants begging for attention, the sounds of children laughing, an argument between two men and the ribald singing of a group of sailors as they made their way into an inn filled the air. It all sounded so normal to Taura. She wondered if they were even aware of Ehlan's fate, or how close they all were to a prophesy that would change their lives forever.
"Did he talk about his family, where he was from?" asked Joli after a moment, his eyes dark, unreadable.
"No," Taura said frowning slightly. "I had assumed he had been raised in Demos. But Enoc, my father's neighbor, once told me that he and my father had met as young men in a city called Tahir," Joli gave a start at the name of the city. It was near the border of Tunon and Tinesse, a city full of both Tunonien and Tinesse citizens.
"Tahir?" he asked his eyes narrowed.
"Yes. I have no idea where that is."
"It's in Tunon," Joli told her softly.
Taura nodded, the answer not surprising her. A cold blast of wind hit them as they turned another corner, sending a chill through all of them. An icy damp rain began to fall heavily soaking them all almost instantly.
"Winter is coming early, another sign," Joli muttered softly. Neither Taura nor the others commented, knowing that to deny it any longer was foolish.
Getting through city posed no problem for them. Most people just glanced at them then away, concerned with their own affairs as they hurried to get out of the chilling rain. Taura looked around as they rode through they city. The buildings were set close together. Small alleyways stretched between buildings. The bottom floors of most buildings contained business, while the top floors seemed to be homes, with small balconies over looking the streets.
As they rode along Taura could hear in the distance the sharp lonely cry of a bird. A tangy, briny, salty smell drifted over the wind. Taura wondered if that was the smell of the ocean. She longed to see that vast body of water up close. Taura had heard stories growing up of the endless body of water and the large swimming animals it housed.
Joli led them through a maze of streets, leaving Taura hopelessly lost. It was almost full dark when they stopped at a granite stone wall. A small wooden door was imbedded in the rock.
"Now listen, let me do any talking to anyone we may meet," the dark man said as they all dismounted. He took the horses and tied them to a post. Grabbing a small boy, Joli paid him a silver coin to mind the horses. Looking around Joli bent to the door. Taking something from his belt, he inserted it into the metal look. With a quick twist of his wrist the door lock clicked and he pushed the door open. Motioning for them to follow, Joli disappeared through the doorway. Taura took a deep breath and followed ready to do what ever it took to find the woman she loved.
Ehlan groaned and turned her head, wincing as a sharp pain lanced through her. She opened her eyes and realized she lay in darkness. Her tongue felt swollen, dry. Ehlan moved slightly and a burst of light flashed behind her closed eyelids, accompanied by a cacophony of pain. Groaning, she moved, rolling over to her side. She was tied. The sharp pain in her right side eased slightly. Ehlan tried to take a deep breath and almost cried out. She dimly remembered the guard kicking her after throwing her into the empty cell.
Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light. She could make out the solid wooden door. It had a small window with bars. The light from the guardroom shone weakly through it, enough for her to make out the straw covered floor. From the smell it had not been changed during her mother's entire reign. She saw a bucket in the corner and grimly guessed what that was used for.
Ehlan tried to open both eyes, but one was swollen shut. She remembered the blows that had been rained down on her. Ehlan tried to move her hands, but the rope cut into them deeply. She swore by the Goddess that they would all die and by her own hand.
Ehlan shivered as the cold from the stone floor seeped into her. She could feel her consciousness slipping from her, she fought it, but it gradually claimed her, sending her into complete darkness.
Much later she awoke again. Her mind was a little clearer, however her body still ached. Her thoughts though flew to Taura. Grimly, Ehlan prayed to the Goddess to keep Taura safe.
As she lay there in the dark with the smell of death around her, Ehlan's thoughts turned to the Prophesy. As a child her governess used to regale her with stories of long dead heroes and battles. One of her favorite stories had been about the last Border war, and how the realm had been saved by the Battle Wizard Zura, the Carun of Tunon. As he lay dying of his wounds before entering the House of Bellus, Mirus visited him.
Mirus told him there would be many battles but there would be one that would decide the fate of the realms of Man. It would pit blood against blood, brother against brother, sister against brother, Tunonien against Tunonien.
Zura could not believe that any Tunonien would fight for Daimys. The Gods, to guard the realms against the Dark God gave them a task. Each God gave the Blessed Tribe a gift. The God Mirus gave them exceptional strength and courage, skill with weapons namely the sword and the staff. The God Bellus gave them long life in order to multiply to give them numbers, to be able to keep guard over the Banished God. And the Goddess, in her Goodness, gave the Tunonien magic.
Mirus told him that it was true Tunonien would fight for Daimys. That when winter came early the Dark God would begin gathering his followers. When there was dissent in the ruling house of Amarilis, there would come an Outlander Tunonien to lead them against the forces of the Banished God, to fight against Tunonien blood. When the twin moons rose red, when darkness came during the day the Dark forces would come. If the Savior refused to learn the Tunonien ways and to fight blood, all would be lost. Daimys would break free and roam the world. The twin Gods and the Goddess would be destroyed and never ending night would rein the sun never to rise again. It was to be Antranik, the Battle of Souls.
Ehlan had always taken the story in stride. She secretly thought that Zura was dreaming, feeling that the story was told to frighten children into behaving. But the Tunonien believed and they did have magic, long lives and large numbers. If what she suspected was true then Taura was the Outlander Tunonien. This meant she would have to fight her brother. Ehlan wasn't sure Taura could do that. With a sinking feeling in her heart Ehlan lay in the dark, her mind trying to do anything to keep the reality of what she was facing from crashing down on her.
The door Joli led them through opened into a small garden. A huge tree sat in the middle of the square. A few stone benches were placed under the tree. The grass looked withered. A stone walkway pointed toward the corner of a huge building. Taura followed as Joli walked soundlessly. He let them in through a small door.
When they entered they were in a long deserted hallway. Rich tapestries hung on the walls, each depicting a different battle. Taura longed to be able to look closely at the richly colored tapestries, but Joli continued on soundless feet.
She followed him through a maze of empty corridors with many twists and turns. Once they ran across a servant carrying a tray, but Joli ignored her and she barely spared a glance at them.
Joli led them deeper into the palace and after awhile he stopped. They were at intersecting corridors. There was a door with two guards on either side. They were wearing black trousers, high polished black boots, with red tunics. A sash of blue with gold trim ran across their chests, the sash of the Heir Companion, Baran's sash. Joli pulled them back down the corridor a ways.
"They're still wearing your colors Baran, so at this time you are still acting High General," he told Baran. The dark haired man nodded as chewed on his upper lip. "Once we are inside send for Captains that you know are loyal to you. Darilas and Trevr can bring the Tunonien to you," Joli said looking at each of them. "If they ask, Taura is here to give a message to the Heir Companion, a message from her Carus."
"From my Carus?" Taura asked frowning at the word again. "What is that?"
"It is a clan leader, a teacher," Darilas answered.
"Won't they ask who that is?"
"No, it is forbidden for you to say the Birth name of your Carus until you wear the Affan," she explained.
"The what?" Taura she was confused.
"I'll explain later," Darilas said. "What about you?" the Carun asked Joli. The dark man smiled grimly.
"I am going to find news. We need to know what is transpiring now. I will be back shortly, quickly gather everyone necessary, then we will make our next move."
"I'll stay with Taura and Baran," Darilas said firmly. Joli looked like he was going to disagree. "We do not know if these guards are loyal. I do not wish to leave the Bonded Companion unprotected. Trevr can relay a message to the te-sudariem," the tone of her voice brooked no argument.
"Very well," Joli turned to look back at Baran. "Be safe, take no chances, and only call those that you know to be loyal," he told the other man. Baran nodded.
"You as well Joli, Ehlan would have my head if I let anything happen to you," he smiled slightly. Joli grinned before clasping Baran's shoulder affectionately. With a quick look at each of them he quickly moved back down the corridor, disappearing around a corner.
Darilas spoke to Trevr in their musical language obviously giving him orders to take back to the others. With a nod and a bow to Taura Trevr also went back down the corridor. The three of them looked at each other. Baran took a deep breath and turned the corner, walking with every bit of arrogance he possessed. Taura and Darilas followed close behind.
He stopped at the door to his chambers. The guards looked almost startled to see him. Taura could not tell if it was because they were not expecting him or because they thought he would not be coming back. Taura half expected them to refuse them entrance.
"My Lord Baran," the guard on the right said. "Welcome back," the two guards saluted the dark haired man, palm of the right hand pressed over the heart and snapped back into place.
"It is good to be back," Baran replied, his voice confident. "Marca," he turned to the guard that had spoken. "I have need to speak with my Captains, please inform Gregan, Chilton and Tomin that I wish to speak with them," the guard saluted again before moving down the hallway, glancing at Darilas and Taura curiously before turning a corner. The other guard opened the door to allow them to enter.
Taura looked around the large room. A large window along the whole of the wall dominated the room beyond. It viewed a huge field. Taura could see soldiers performing maneuvers. There was a desk strewn with papers, two hardback chairs sat in front of the desk. There were two doors leading from the room. One door was closed, the other open to reveal a room with a similar window. The only furniture was a long table with what looked to be a map on it.
Taura turned around in the room taking it all in. On one wall was a small portrait, it was of Ehlan, a younger Ehlan. The blond woman was smiling a small secret smile, her eyes full of mirth. Taura could tell she was looking at Baran as she posed for the portrait. Ehlan had worn that look every time she spoke of Baran. A quick bolt of jealousy ran through her as the full realization of what Baran and Ehlan meant to each other slammed into her. She took a deep breath pushing the emotion down. That didn't matter; the only thing that mattered was saving Ehlan.
"Do you think Maybor has gone to Daimys?" asked Darilas once they were alone in the room. It was something that had been bothering her, wondering if the Councilor had sold his soul. The assassins who wore the amulet of the priests of Daimys had to have been sent by someone.
"It's possible. He would do whatever it took to gain the High Blood Throne," Baran answered with a shrug.
"I thought only women held the throne?" asked Taura.
"They do, but there are a few power hungry Councilors who would like to be the first man to sit the Throne. That honor is prophesied for another," Baran explained.
He looked at Taura as she stood in a puddle, shivering in the coolness of them room. Darilas also was similarly shaking.
"Can we get to Maybor?" Darilas questioned.
"He has surrounded himself with guards. It is impossible. It would be a suicide mission," Baran told them. "We need evidence though against Maybor," Baran said softly almost to himself.
"Why?" Taura asked.
"Because if we find evidence that Maybor has committed treason we can clear Ehlan of these charges," he explained. Taura frowned not sure she understood.
"Where are his offices?" Darilas wanted to know.
"He has been using the High General's offices. He says he needs to be closer to the Queen's chambers, since she has such a great fear of assassins," he grinned evilly. He turned and went over to the window looking out into the soggy practice field below.
"You both must be soaked to the skin," he looked back at them. Baran went to the door and opened it. "Atley," he said, revealing one of the guards stationed outside. The named guard turned and saluted the High General's replacement. "My Cavena, needs fresh clothes and a bath, please see to it," the guard saluted again and headed off.
"Please sit. Would you like wine or maybe something hot?" Baran asked looking back at the two women.
"Tolaz would be wonderful. I haven't had any since leaving home," Taura answered, naming the hot drink, brewed from fragrant beans. Her mother used to add steamed goat's milk to it, but Taura and her father liked it in its natural black. Baran nodded and pulled a tasseled rope suspended from the ceiling. A moment later a serving girl with tousled red hair and red rimmed eyes entered.
"Nemi, please bring us a tray and tolaz," Baran ordered softly. His eyes were concerned as he studied the former ladies maid. It was obvious she had been crying.
"Yes sir," she curtseyed. "Lord Baran, have you heard from the Heir Princess?" she asked her voice sad.
"No Nemi, I have not," he answered carefully. The serving woman nodded, curtseyed again and left the room.
"Who was that?" Taura asked.
"A maid," Baran answered shortly, averting his eyes.
Taura narrowed her eyes, realizing he was not telling her everything. A knock on the door prevented Taura from asking for more information. The guard Atley came in carrying clothes followed by a train of servants, with a tub and water. Baran pointed to the closed door and they hurriedly went about their task.
"You may change and bathe in there," Baran pointed after the servants had left. Taura nodded and she and Darilas went into the room.
It was a plain windowless room. There was a wooden stand with a pitcher and large bowl, a high wardrobe and a narrow bed. Taura unbuckled her sword and began removing the wet and travel stained tunic. After undressing she sank gratefully into the warm water. She quickly washed knowing that Darilas would also want to bathe. There was a soft knock on the door. Darilas opened it to reveal the servants returning with more hot water.
After brushing the tangles from her long hair, Taura pulled it back and secured it with the leather tie. Hurriedly, she dressed in the clean clothes that had been provided. The breeches and tunic were soft to the touch and the color of wheat, a sandy color. The boots were made of supple leather and were a peculiar shade of gray, almost the color of rock. They seemed to fit themselves perfectly to her feet. The long sleeves of the tunic were tight around her wrists, not uncomfortably so, and loose around the arms and shoulders, with a fullness that allowed for plenty of room to move around. The throat was open but could be closed by pulling on the ends of a string threaded through the open vee of the shirt. Taura had remembered seeing similar clothes in her father's trunk. They were exactly like the clothes she had seen Darilas and the other Tunonien wear. They were exactly like the fresh clothes that Darilas was now pulling on herself. Taura belted on her sword, and slipped her dagger into her boot pushing those thoughts from her mind. Taura looked over her shoulder at Darilas, but the other woman was not looking at her. Quickly she hid the small bags of coins. Inside the breeches, close to the body were small pockets where the bags fit easily.
When they were dressed Taura and Darilas went back through into the main room. Baran was sitting at his desk looking intently at a stack of papers. He too had changed into clean, dry clothes. He was dressed in his uniform, the silver braid on his tunic contrasting beautifully with his dark coloring.
"You look better," he grinned.
"I smell better," Taura answered. She caught a whiff of the steaming tolaz. A tray of fruit and sweet cakes sat next to the pitcher. "Hmm, that smells good."
"Help yourself. I just received word that Maybor is leaving the Palace this evening for his residence in the city, apparently he is having a party," Baran said with a feral grin. Taura looked up from the cup she held in her hand and Darilas turned around from the window where she was looking down at the field below. "That means his office here will be unattended. Which means after he leaves we can go to his office. It also means that even if they have Ehlan they will not execute her tonight," he said with relief.
"Execute her?" Taura paled at the thought. Baran looked at her, his dark eyes unreadable.
"Do you know what we are looking for? Or if it will even be there?" Darilas asked hurriedly.
"No, I don't know," he sighed. "But I think we will know it when we see it. As for it being there, Maybor is very full of himself and he keeps records of all his dealings. If it is not in the offices it will be at his residence." Baran told them still grinning at their good fortune. Humming softly he joined her at the table near the window and bit deeply into a sweet cake. Taura though did not feel as pleased as Baran did.
"Baran, if Maybor managed to kill or arrest Ehlan's supporters how come he hasn't done the same for you?"
"There are a few reasons that he hasn't been able to work around yet," Baran began selecting another cake. Darilas came over to sit at the table as well. "My father is a Noble Tibor on the High Council itself. He holds a lot of power, almost as much as Maybor himself. I don't believe Maybor is ready to challenge that, which means he has been slowly loosing the power he does hold. I also have the loyalty of the Queen's Army; his forces don't yet match those numbers." Taura thought of the massing of mercenaries she and Ehlan had seen on their travel to Borcea. If he didn't have a large enough force by now, he would soon. Her frown grew as she wondered if the gathered Tunonien were enough if they had to fight their way out.
"Do not worry Taura," Darilas said softly, her eyes on Taura. The other woman wondered if Darilas knew what she had been thinking. "The Goddess will watch over us," Darilas' voice was firm with the conviction she felt.
Ehlan opened her eyes again, wondering if she had fallen asleep. With a soft groan she moved, trying to shift position to ease the ache in her shoulders. She wondered how much time had passed from the time she had been captured. Once more thoughts of Taura crowded her mind. She hoped that the auburn haired woman had managed to escape.
Her thoughts were broken by the sound of boot heels striking the stone floor. They stopped at the door to her cell. With a shriek of protest the iron door was opened. Torchlight poured into the room. Ehlan could see the form of a man come into the cell. He bent down and roughly pulled her to her feet. Ehlan stumbled trying to regain her balance. A rough sack that smelled faintly of cabbage was pulled over her head.
"Come on wit ya! The Queen wants to see ya!" a gruff voice rasped as she was pulled out of the cell. To push back the nauseating pain Ehlan let thoughts of her mother fill her mind as she was half lead, half drug up stone steps.
Ehlan wondered how she would find her mother. In the months before Ehlan had been sent away her mother had begun to act secretive, rarely speaking to Ehlan, unless necessary. The executions had started then. She would spend long hours in council with Maybor and her other advisors. Their relationship had deteriorated so much so that at a state dinner, the Queen had pointedly ignored Ehlan.
Ehlan also thought back to the rumors surrounding the Queen and Maybor. She refused to believe though, that the Queen was willing to share Maybor's bed in hopes of producing another child. That idea was then and now, ludicrous.
The two guards that escorted her talked back and forth to each other, regaling the other with boasts of what they would do to the Heir Princess once Maybor was finished with her. Ehlan reminded herself that she was the Heir Princess, direct descendant of the warrior queen Borcea, one in a long line of warrior queens and refused to give into the sudden panic that threatened to engulf her.
Blindly Ehlan stumbled along, wondering where they were. After awhile the guards with her fell silent and a few times they stopped moving, almost as if they were letting others pass. After what seemed like miles of walking they slowed and stopped. One of the guards barked out an order to have a door opened. Ehlan heard a new voice answer and then she was roughly pushed through a door way. Rough hands grabbed her to keep her from falling and the hood was removed from her head. Blinking she looked around.
Ehlan knew which room she had been brought to. It was her mother's dressing room. The tapestries on the wall showed a garden with a waterfall, and wood nymphs traipsing around trees. The room was decorated in all white and rose-colored fabrics. It was entirely too delicate for Ehlan's tastes. The room was empty. The guards behind her pushed her toward a door in the back of the room.
Ehlan knew the door would open into her mother's private bedchamber. No one was allowed inside, except for the Queen's personal servant. And she had to knock first. The guard on her right knocked lightly before opening the door. Silently they pushed Ehlan through the door. Off balance Ehlan fell to the floor.
Struggling to stand Ehlan looked around the Queen's private chamber. A huge bed sat in the precise center; damask curtains were pulled back to reveal it. Matching red curtains hung over the windows, locking out the night. The bed was empty. Sitting at the dressing table, though, calmly brushing her blond hair sat the Queen. Her green eyes coolly regarded Ehlan through the mirror.
"Come in Ehlan," came the imperious though unnecessary order.
The Queen put down the brush and turned to face her daughter. A cruel smile flirted with her lips as she took in the sight of her daughter standing before her tied and bound. "So nice to see you again my dear," her voice was haughty, her green eyes cold as she studied her daughter, the Heir Princess. As the Queen moved in her chair Ehlan noticed for the first time her obvious pregnancy.
"So, it's true then," Ehlan said softly. Her mother's eyes lit up with a strange fire. Her hands went protectively to her stomach.
"Yes it is. I am sorry you had to find out this way Ehlan," Maen said insincerely. "We were hoping to have taken care of the problem sooner."
"The problem? So Mother, am I now a problem?" asked Ehlan bitterly.
"You were ever a problem Ehlan. You are too much like your father, he was never easily swayed."
"What have you done with my father?" Ehlan demanded stepping deeper into the room.
"Nothing," the Queen shrugged. "Yet. He is at the Border, checking the defenses. Some time tomorrow he will have an accident," Ehlan clenched her fists, trying to keep calm.
"Mother, why?" Ehlan whispered her voice stricken.
"Do you think I am beautiful Ehlan?" the Queen asked suddenly, turning to look back at the mirror. She looked lovingly at the pale, smooth skin, the golden blond hair and clear green eyes.
"I'm getting old though. Imagine, never growing old, staying beautiful and never giving up my power," her voice and eyes grew hard. "It's such a simple thing really Ehlan. I give him a child and your life and he gives me eternal beauty and life," Ehlan looked at her mother, horrified, realizing that her mother had sold her soul to Daimys, the Soul Stealer.
"How could you?" Ehlan managed her voice strangled with the disgust she felt.
"It's so easy for you to pass judgment Ehlan. Your skin is still smooth, no wrinkles. You don't ache when you stand; you don't see the end of your life fast approaching. You are still young!" Maen said her voice rising. "You don't know what it's like to grow old! To know that the power you wield will someday be taken away. You have no idea!" Her eyes had grown wide, madness shining in their depths.
"You're mad," whispered Ehlan her eyes wide with shock and horror.
"Not mad Ehlan," Queen Maen chuckled softly. "Just practical," her eyes narrowed and shone with a feral light, focusing on something behind Ehlan. Before Ehlan could react a hard arm grabbed her from behind, pressing a knife to her throat. A sharp pain shot through the back of her head and all went dark as she fell to the floor.
Ehlan woke a few moments later, a sharp, throbbing pain in her head. She was still bound, her hands and feet tied. Rough hands pulled her to her feet. The Queen watched all of this with a smile.
"This will not happen," Ehlan vowed softly, her voice gruff. "I will have my birthright."
A harsh laugh sounded behind her. Coming into her line of vision was a man in scarlet robes. His brown hair hung lank and straight to his shoulders. A huge crooked nose dominated his thin face. His full thick lips were parted in an obscene smile, revealing crooked, yellow teeth.
"So nice to see you again Ehlan," his voice was deep and sibilant. "You lead us on a merry chase my dear."
"I wish I could say the same Maybor," Ehlan replied dryly, trying to ignore the throbbing in her head.
The knife was pressed against her throat again. Maybor laughed before dropping a kiss on the Queen's cheek. She knew that it was so Maybor could feel superior to her, he wanted to see her helpless, he wanted her to cry out, to beg and Ehlan vowed to never give him that satisfaction.
"How did you get away in Fadgon?" he asked conversationally.
"It was easy. Apparently the Queen's Army doesn't recruit smart peasants. All of that of course will change once I am Queen," Ehlan said arrogantly.
"If I were you I would keep a civil tongue!" Maybor snapped, his eyes blazing.
"If I were you, I would worry about how to keep my head," Ehlan shot back.
Maybor's eyes narrowed dangerously. Even bound and with a knife to her throat Ehlan still exuded arrogance and confidence, doubt niggled in his belly and Maybor quickly suppressed it.
"Since you are the one bound before me, I think that should be your worry," he laughed. Maybor turned and looked down at the demure looking Queen pausing to regain his momentary loss of composure.
"So, Heir Princess," he stressed sarcastically. "You see your mother is going to gift the realm and myself with an Heir. It's such a shame that its sibling will be executed for treason. Not a very good role model I'm afraid for the child," he shook his head as if in despair.
"No worse a role model, than yourself," Maybor's eyes flashed angrily again.
"Ehlan, it will be my distinct pleasure to order your head removed," he said through clenched teeth.
"Maybor, it will be my distinct pleasure to spit in your face before I remove your head myself," Ehlan answered grimly.
Maybor's hand shot out and slapped her full across the face. The sting of her cheek was forgotten by the sting of the blade as it cut into her flesh. She could feel a small trickle of blood as it began its downward journey. Ehlan could taste blood from the cut in her mouth. "I will use a very dull sword Maybor."
"How I wish the priests had finished you off before I ever had to see your face again," he hissed angrily his face near hers, his breath hot and foul on her cheek.
"So it was you who sent the assassins after us. I must have frightened you terribly to risk ordering the Dark God's priests around," Ehlan said to him with an arrogant smirk. She pushed down the fear that threatened to well up; she refused to give Maybor the satisfaction. "How does it feel to know that after I kill you, you will not be Reborn as your soul is forfeit?" she asked almost curiously, cocking her head to one side.
Maybor's face flushed scarlet and spittle flew from his fleshly lips. His hands clenched and without warning his fist shot out and struck Ehlan again. Her head rocked back and she would have fallen if the guards had not been holding her. Ehlan shook her head groggily and stood, pining Maybor with her icy glare.
"I will use a dull sword Maybor," she told him tightly, her eyes hard. "A very dull sword."
Once the Captains that Baran had requested arrived Taura sat back and allowed the others to plot and plan. All her thoughts were on Ehlan. She wondered where she was, if she was in the Palace as Trevr had stated. And if she was, where was she being held. Her thoughts firmly on the other woman Taura paced through out the room, not noticing that Darilas watched her every move.
"My Lord Baran! My Lord Baran!" a boy cried rushing into the room. His eyes grew wide as he saw the gathered Captains and Tunonien. "My Lord, they have her!"
"Have who?" Baran asked a dreadful fear beginning in the pit of his stomach.
"The Heir Princess! Maybor captured the Heir Princess, right in the Queen's Chambers. They say she was just raising the dagger to plunge it in the Queen's heart when the Guard rushed in!" the boy's said, his eyes wide.
Taura's face drained of all color; she would have fallen if Darilas had not caught her. She knew now that Ehlan was truly in the Palace. All the panic and the terror at the thought of Ehlan's fate came crashing back down on her and she felt the need to rush from the room and take on the entire Guard just to get to Ehlan.
"You may go now boy," Baran said softly.
"Baran, call the Guard, you command them." Taura pleaded, hoping that would be a simple solution to their problem.
"We must get the evidence against Maybor," Baran said shaking his head, his eyes a little wild. The gathered captains had agreed with his assessment. "Once we have that, then we can help her."
"Baran they will kill her!"
"I know Taura!" he shouted, his face pale. "Don't you think I know that? But what good will it do if we manage to free her, only to have her hunted for treason!"
"She would be free!"
"She would not be Queen. She must be Queen!" Baran's fists were clenched in impotent fury.
"We must hurry. Maybor may suspect what we are to do," Darilas broke in. "I will send word to the te-sudariem, to make ready," she closed her eyes and her face grew soft.
Taura felt again the amulet around her neck grow warm. She heard a soft buzzing in her ears, almost like voices. Suddenly Darilas' eyes opened and the buzzing ceased.
"They will be ready," Darilas told Baran letting him know that she had communicated the plans they had made to the Tunonien. Baran nodded.
The door burst open again and Joli came through. His black tunic had a small hole, blood seeping through. His eyes, though, were filled with fury.
"They have her," he confirmed flatly. He quickly told them of what he knew and of the brief fight he had been in trying to get to her as the guards had escorted her to the dungeon. "We have to hurry; they will be coming for Baran next." Baran and his Captains shared a look. Without a word the Captains left rushing to convey their own orders.
The other four left the room quickly heading for the deserted corridor that would lead them to the doorway for a passage. Baran told Taura that the Palace was full of secret passages and doorways that were built into the walls, passages that he and Ehlan had used extensively while hiding from guards as children. The passage they were looking for would take them to Maybor's chambers. Baran had Darilas send Tunonien to warn the councilors loyal to Ehlan and to let them know what they had planned. According to the information Darilas received back from her silent conversations, each were gathering their own troops around them. Mayhem was already breaking out in the Palace and in the streets as word of Ehlan's "capture" spread like wildfire.
Already there had been skirmishes between the Councilor's Guard's and the Queen's Guards. At least one Councilor was dead. Maybor was making his move. He believed the Tunonien would come to help the Queen's smaller Palace Guard. He could not know that the Tunonien's Carussa had returned and her wished superseded all. So far the Tunonien had made no move to enter the Palace. The Tunonien placed themselves in the courtyard of the Palace and just outside the gates, effectively sealing off the Palace from outside reinforcements for either Maybor or the Councilors.
As the four ran, bedlam reigned in the hallways. Screaming servants ran to and fro. Wild-eyed Guards tried to cut them down. They were quickly dispatched. Darilas put herself between Taura and an attacking guard, her sword a blur as she effectively cut down the Guardsman. Taura watched in awe at her ability.
"Baran, they are going to kill her!" wailed a disheveled servant, clutching at Baran's arm. It took Taura a moment to recognize the maid, Nemi. "They are going to kill her! You must go to her, tell her I love her!" she wailed, tears streaming down her face. Taura felt her heart stop, and then harden.
"Stop it Nemi!" Baran shouted, trying to pry the sobbing girl off him.
"Baran!" she wailed again. "You know I love her, I know she loves me! You must save her!"
"Let me," Taura said softly to Baran.
She pulled hard on the woman's arm. Swiftly she pulled back her fist and slammed it into Nemi's jaw. The maid's eyes glazed over and she fell like a sack to the floor, out cold. Baran looked at Taura and smiled as she shook out the pain in her hand. Joli gave a bark of laughter. With out another word they continued on their way. Arriving at the door to the passage, Taura and Baran stood guard, looking around, till Joli managed to get it open. Silently they disappeared into the darkness.
The guard pushed her savagely back through the door of the cell, laughing when she fell to the stone floor. The door clanged shut and she lay in darkness. Ehlan lay there trying to catch her breath pushing through the pain that threatened to engulf her. The stabbing pain in her right side was back. With a groan she managed to push herself over onto her back. A sharp shard of rock dug itself into her back. Tears of helplessness welled up into her eyes; fortunately unconsciousness stole over her, preventing them from falling.
Taura felt as if she had been walking forever. They had not brought torches so they had to stumble around in the deep darkness. Joli lead the way through the many twists and turns. It was very cold in the tunnel. Taura keenly missed the warmth of her cloak. She was glad she had remembered to grab her staff though. Taura was much more comfortable with the staff than with the sword, even though in the cramped space the staff was virtually useless. As she gripped her staff her father's words came to her. She had asked why they needed to learn the things he was teaching them.
"The world is larger than this farm Taura girl, you never know if you'll need something until you do. " Tears came to her eyes at the thought of her father. She had never missed him more than she did now. Taura figured he would know what to do.
"We're here," whispered Joli as they stopped. Suddenly a panel slid open. A tapestry hid the tunnel from view.
"Taura, you and Joli stay here," Baran ordered. "Maybor may know of these passages so keep an eye out," he said before slipping into the empty room. Darilas gave Joli a hard look before following Baran.
The moments ticked by endlessly. Taura began to wonder how this was going to help Ehlan. Every moment they waited was a moment closer to death for Ehlan. Taura shifted restlessly. The only sound was the rasp of Joli's breathing.
"Are you all right?" Taura asked suddenly.
"Hurts like the blazes," muttered Joli. He groaned as he shifted his weight.
"Let me see," Taura took a step toward him.
"It is just a scratch," he rasped. "Besides, it's too dark in here."
"Hush now," Taura pushed his hands away and lightly grazed the exposed flesh with her fingers. Her fingers moved surely as they probed the oozing wound. She could see with out seeing. Taura could tell that the wound would begin to fester soon and Joli would die. She had no idea how she knew it or how she could see the wound in her mind's eye.
Taura's mind saw the beginning of the fester and traced it back. Her fingers lightly felt around the edge of the wound. She could tell none of his internal organs had been damaged. Taura did not try to analyze how she knew this, she would worry about it later, and right now Joli needed her. In her mind she saw how the area must appear when healed.
Suddenly, her fingers grew warm and a small current went through them to Joli. The man gasped sharply and fell back as his knees buckled. Taura felt suddenly very light headed, a buzzing sound roared in her ears.
"Great Goddess," Joli whispered hoarsely. His hands flew to his side. "What did you do?" Taura did not answer.
Strange colors seemed to come from nowhere to dance before her eyes, bombarding her with sensation. A chorus of curious voices chattered in her ears. She could feel them pulling on her, trying to take her with them. Taura felt herself slipping away, her soul floating from her body. As she started to fall, strong firm hands gripped her around her waist, holding her up. Suddenly Darilas' voice appeared in her mind.
"Hush now, little one, you surprised them, they want to know about you," she said softly to Taura. Her voice continued on in that strange almost musical language. The sound of it floated warmly through her. She wanted very much to understand those words. Without warning the colors and voices left, leaving Taura felling bereft in their absence.
"What was that?" Taura managed.
"All in good time, little one," Darilas' voice was warm, affectionate.
"We got it!" Baran broke in excitedly. In his hand were a handful of papers. "Letters to Guard Captains, and a dispatch from the Queen detailing their plans! And a list of his supporters! Everything we wanted to know!" Baran's voice rose in excitement. "He also left a list of all his financial backers. He paid a very pretty copper for this scheme."
"Why would he have all of that left in his rooms? Why keep any of it, doesn't he know that this could be used against him?" Taura asked confused.
"Maybor is very arrogant. He thinks he is smarter than everyone else is. He has just proved that he is actually less intelligent than we thought!" Baran grinned.
"We need to get out of here," Joli reminded them, his hand still pressed against his side, where the wound was. Now smooth flesh rested beneath his hand.
Ehlan heard them long before she saw them. They were laughing and telling crude jokes. Bragging again about what they were going to do to Ehlan before she died. Her heart was pounding and fear had left a bitter taste in her mouth when the door was thrown open.
"Your presence has been requested by the High Council," came the hard, snide voice of the Captain of the Guard.
"Tell them, due to pressing engagements, I must regretfully decline their kind invitation," Ehlan said through clenched teeth. She cried out in pain as the Captain kicked her injured side. None to gently, they pulled her to her feet. She could feel her arm straining in the socket.
"No more lip from you, slut!" he growled. "I don't think Maybor will really care if you die before you get to the Council Chamber."
"How would you like to die?" Ehlan asked, her voice soft, quiet, her eyes hard, cold. The rough Captain actually blanched, before pushing her through the door.
Once in the guardroom, two soldiers pointed swords at her, pushing the points into her flesh, just enough to draw blood, one under the chin and the other in her chest. Her abilities were well known. A third guard cut the ropes around her wrists. The relief was short lived as a fourth brought chains and shackles for her wrists and ankles. They heavy iron cut into her wrists deeply, blood began to drip over the metal and fall to the floor.
Ehlan held her head high and strode as arrogantly as she could as they lead her from the cells and up toward the higher areas of the Palace, toward the Council Chamber.
Order had been restored somewhat by the time they lead Ehlan from the underground cell. The battle still raged in other parts of the Palace, but relative peace reigned here. The main hallway was lined with servants, courtiers, minor officials and nobility. They watched in silence, as Ehlan was lead toward the huge carved double doors of the throne room. Ehlan kept her head high and her face composed. She refused to show fear.
Ehlan was lead into the long room. Inside, the room was full as well. Council members, functionaries, dignitaries and nobility filled the room. They all stood and watched, as Ehlan was drug toward the High Blood Throne. Ehlan strode carefully over the long red velvet carpet walkway. Her eyes sought out the Queen as she sat on the Throne. The woman wore her crown and ceremonial robes, looking every inch the Queen.
The High Blood Throne was an ornately carved wooden throne. The wood was a bright crimson red. Her escort stopped at the foot of the raised dais. Standing next to the Queen, in his official robes was Maybor. He held himself as if he were taller than what he was. His face wore a self-satisfied smirk. The other members of the High Council were seated in on benches below and to the right of the Throne. The Throne sat alone on its raised dais. During the Kerage, the gathering every third year, when the ruling monarchs were in the Palace, thrones would be placed on either side of the Blood Throne, one level lower. No Throne was to be placed on the same level or higher than the High Blood Throne.
Silence fell over the crowd. Ehlan found herself thinking of the last Kerage. During the Kerage laws would be made or revised, political matters would be discussed, but there would also be festivals and balls, skill games, jousting, and of course time for love. Ehlan recalled gifting many women with the Goddess' Blessing; the thought brought a small smile to her lips in remembrance. Maybor frowned at the sight of the proud, smiling Heir Princess.
"You have been arrested on the charge of High Treason," Maybor intoned, trying to hide his glee. "How say you?" Ehlan remained silent. Maybor frowned again. The Queen leaned forward slightly. "How say you?!" he thundered finally.
"It matters not what I say, since this mockery will be played out," Ehlan stated coldly. There were gasps and murmuring from the crowd. The Queen waved an imperious hand to silence them.
"So you do not deny that you conspired to take the Throne from Queen Maen?" he asked almost chuckling with delight.
"I did not conspire when you charged me. And now there is no conspiracy since the High Blood Throne belongs to me," shocked gasps escaped many lips. The Queen opened her mouth to speak, but Maybor silenced her with a small movement of his hand.
"Such insolence, if there was any doubt of your guilt, it has now been erased. Since the Queen is now carrying an Heir, there is no need to keep you alive till such a time as one is produced." He paused dramatically.
"Ehlan of House Amarilis, it is the decision of the Queen and the High Council that you be put to death on the charge of High Treason," Maybor intoned, evidently winning his battle not to smile in triumph. "So it is said, so shall it be done." He nodded to the nearest guard.
The scarlet clad guard drew his sword. Ehlan looked at her mother, pinning the woman with her gaze. The Queen met her stare, lifting her chin proudly, her eyes betraying no emotion. Silence reigned in the room as Ehlan was shoved to her knees.
"NO!" came a shout from the door. Everyone turned toward the sound. Ehlan's shoulders sagged slightly at the reprieve. Her heart soared at the sound of her Bonded's voice. "This can not be done!" Baran shouted, striding arrogantly toward the Throne. Behind him strode Darilas and Taura. Tunonien poured into the room, followed by loyal Guardsmen. Joli appeared suddenly between Ehlan and the Guardsman holding her, his own sword drawn. The Guard Captain's eyes flickered nervously, Ehlan's earlier threat repeating itself in his mind.
"What is the meaning of this Baran?" roared Maybor. "Guards arrest the Bonded Companion!" he ordered. The Palace Guards hesitated, looking at each other.
"Maybor, the Heir Princess and the Bonded Companion have the entire Tunonien Nation at their disposal," Darilas said quietly, following her newly found Carussa's wishes. Maybor visibly paled.
"That is Treason! The Tunonien are Bonded to the Throne!" Darilas smiled
"Yes, we are," she waited while her answer settled in. The crowd grew restive, whispered conversations growing loud.
"Silence!" the Queen spoke, harshly, for the first time.
"Do you know what you are saying Darilas? Are you prepared to defend your actions? To bring war on your people?" she asked the Carun, the war leader of the Tunonien.
"Are you prepared to wage that war?" Darilas countered.
"Ehlan has been tried and sentenced for her crimes, you can not interfere with the decision of the Queen," Maybor insisted.
"We have reason to believe, Maybor, that the crimes are false. That the Queen was given erroneous information," Baran said, his eyes intently studying Maybor.
"The sentence has been issued Baran," Maybor insisted stubbornly, trying to hold on. "Nothing you have to say will affect that decision."
"Maybor, I think we should hear what he has to say," one of the High Council spoke up. Baran recognized him, Isyk, one of the Councilors who secretly supported Ehlan.
"We cannot Isyk. It would give way to anarchy; the rulings must be obeyed. There can not be special rules for the Heir Princess," Queen Maen stated firmly. "This is the will of the Queen." Her voice rang throughout the room. Baran smiled cruelly.
"Your Majesty, if we had proof?" he asked softly. The Queen visibly paled. Maybor's face drained of color, and then flushed brightly. He opened and closed his mouth repeatedly.
"Proof?" the Queen, asked softly.
"Yes, proof," Baran raised his hand so all could see the sheaf of papers in his hand. "I have dispatches from Maybor to the Queen's Army's garrison in Fadgon stating that they were to detain Ehlan. I have dispatches from the Queen to Maybor, explaining in detail their fabrication of the charges against Ehlan, to be able to execute her legally. Explaining how to make their unborn child the Heir!" he shouted. "I have letters from the High Priest of Daimys to Maybor confirming their plans to kill Ehlan!" Shouts erupted from the gathered nobles, shock ran through the room.
Suddenly, Baran was pushed to the floor and Taura was standing over him. He was angry until he saw the arrow on the ground in front of him. His eyes flew to the balcony that surrounded the throne room. The bowman was already down, his hand dangling through the railing.
Madness suddenly reigned. Men shouting, women screaming, people pushing their way toward the door, trying to get out. Taura reached down and pulled Baran to his feet. Once he was up she began fighting her way toward Ehlan, her staff a blur as she used it to clear a path. Joli was hard pressed to keep three of Maybor's soldiers from reaching the Heir. He shot Taura a grateful look as she quickly dispatched one of the guards.
"Kill him," Ehlan whispered fiercely to Joli. He was fighting the Captain who had broken her ribs. The blood drained from the Captain's face and he fought harder as death stalked him, his sword a blur as he fought off Joli. But as frantic as he was, he was no match for Joli. With a small groan, the Captain looked down, startled at the sword in his chest. Without another sound he fell to the ground.
There was fighting everywhere. From seemingly nowhere, more Tunonien came pouring into the melee. They seemed to be everywhere as they swarmed into the throne room.
"The Queen!" shouted Baran pointing toward the Throne. The Queen's personal Guard suddenly surrounded the Maen and Maybor. They were fighting fiercely to keep the Tunonien from reaching them.
As Baran watched and fought his way toward them, he saw Maybor turn and pull the Queen off the dais and they disappeared behind it. When he got there, they were nowhere to be seen.
"They went through the wall," a blood spattered Tunonien said grimly. Baran's fingers searched for the hidden spring as the battle raged around them. Suddenly it sprung open and he ordered soldiers and Tunonien through to find the Queen.
"Enough!" Ehlan's voice roared over the commotion.
Sudden silence settled over the room. All eyes turned toward the battered Heir Princess, who even in chains, stood arrogant and proud, every inch the warrior Queen.
"There will be no more fighting in the Throne Room. Baran find those of the Palace Guard who are still loyal, have them imprison the rest," she took a deep breath. "Joli find the Councilors on that list and bring them to me," she paused and looked around, her green eyes searching the faces of the Councilors still present. "Now would be a good time to prove your loyalty. I have need of your Household Guard," Several blanched and hesitated, most quickly ordered their officers to join Baran. Ehlan turned toward Taura, a plea in her eyes. A look passed between them, their feelings in their eyes for all to see.
"Taura, could you please remove these?" she pleaded softly holding her hands up.
Taura gave a soft cry of dismay. She searched the body of the Captain until she found the key. As gently as she could she unlocked the shackles and let them fall. Tears came to her eyes as she saw the deep welts cut into Ehlan's wrists. Taura tenderly tried to remove the dried blood. Ehlan gently touched her face, lifting Taura's head so that Ehlan could see her eyes. Emotions passed between them, their connection on their faces.
"Your Highness, we have secured the Throne Room, we will now start a sweep through out the Palace," a Palace Guard Captain informed her. Ehlan nodded.
"Your Majesty!" Baran said in a loud voice. "Allow me to escort you to your Throne!" the Captain blanched at the correction in Ehlan's title.
Ehlan nodded and placed her hand on Baran's arm. They slowly approached the Throne, their boot heels striking the flagstones. No one spoke, no one moved as Ehlan ascending the Throne. Reaching the Throne, Ehlan turned to face the room her expression unreadable. Her eyes scanned the room before she sat on the Throne. As one, the people roared their approval. The air was filled with the sounds of hundreds of swords being raised in salute. Ehlan smiled slightly then fainted, her blood flowing freely onto the Throne, further staining the wood red.
It was some time later when Ehlan opened her eyes. She was on a blanket next to the High Blood Throne. The backs of a dozen Tunonien, her Caven, kept her from view. Darilas was finishing tying a bandage around her left wrist. Her right was already bound. Ehlan tried to take a deep breath but the bandage around her chest prevented her from doing so.
"You're awake," came Taura's voice. Ehlan turned her head to look at the somber, concerned face of Taura. The others gray eyes were clouded with worry. "How do you feel?" She touched the other woman's face gently as if almost afraid that she was not really there.
"Fine, help me up and give me my sword," she struggled to get up.
"You are destined to die in bed Ehlan, but if you take up a sword you will die today," Darilas said not taking her eyes off the cut above Ehlan's eye. She began dabbing a strong smelling ointment on the cut. Ehlan grimaced.
"Still cheery as ever Darilas," she said dryly. "Ouch!"
"Quit whining," Darilas muttered. Taura chuckled.
A commotion at the bottom of the dais caught her attention. She looked and saw a blond woman in a green silk gown trying to push her way through the guards. Nemi also was there, trying to get by.
"Let me by! I must see her! I am her betrothed!" the blond in the silk gown was saying. Nemi and Taura gasped as one. Darilas looked over her shoulder and back at Ehlan. The Queen nodded resigned.
"Taura," she said softly, hoping the other would look at her. Taura refused to meet her gaze while she tried to gather her thoughts.
"Thank you," the blond said as the previously immobile Tunonien guards moved aside. Taura looked down at Ehlan.
"Ehlan?" she whispered her voice breaking along with her heart.
The pain filled look Ehlan gave her answered all of her questions. Before Ehlan or Taura could say another word, the blond was there. She pushed past Taura and fell to her knees at Ehlan's side.
"Oh Ehlan, I was so worried about you," Serina sobbed.
She placed tender kisses on Ehlan's face, cradling it softly. She missed the stricken look Taura gave Ehlan. The Queen's sad eyes though saw every emotion on Taura's face. Ehlan watched as Taura's heart broke. Rising, Taura stumbled away.
Taura stood in a corner, her back to the room. Her gray eyes were blank, staring at nothing. Not since her parent's death had she felt so alone. Questions swirled in her mind. Confusion threatened to take over. So much had happened that she didn't know how to sort it all out. She could feel the tears threaten to fall, but she refused to give in.
Taura paid no attention to the many reports being brought in. There were still pockets of resistance in the Palace, but the officers believed they would be taken soon. There was still no sign of the Queen and Maybor. Joli was leading the search through the tunnels.
The thought of Joli brought a new set of questions. How had she been able to heal him? Did it have anything to do with Ehlan's wounds in the forest going away? Did she heal Ehlan then? And what were those colors? Whose voices did she hear? How did she hear them? She ignored the looks that the Tunonien were giving her, half awe and half fear. Suddenly Taura longed for the simpleness of the farm. She vowed as soon as it was safe she would leave and go back to the farm. Leave Borcea and Ehlan behind. A sob caught in her throat.
"No need to cry Carussa," Darilas said softly coming up to Taura. That now familiar thrill shot through Taura at the name.
"Don't call me that," Taura ordered wearily, even though she knew it was fruitless.
"It is who you are, the Carussa, our Queen, or rather who you will be."
"I just want to go home Darilas," Taura sighed.
"All Tunonien long for the endless Plains of Tunon."
"No, home, my home, the farm where I was raised," even as the words escaped her mouth Taura knew she would never see the small farm again.
"Taura, that is not possible," Darilas said softly. "There are things you must learn, things you are destined to do. Besides, do you really want to leave Ehlan?" the last came almost like a blow.
"She has her Betrothed," Taura spat angrily, her eyes picking out the figure of the blond in the silk dress. Darilas smiled knowingly.
"The Lady Serina is not destined to be Ehlan's Chosen Companion."
"It doesn't matter. What happened to us while we were traveling was a mistake," Taura hoped if she said it enough her heart would start to believe her.
"The Goddess does not make mistakes Taura," the Carun said quietly her eyes intense. "It is the will of the Goddess that you learn to become who you were destined to be, and that you be with Ehlan."
"And who am I destined to be?" Taura asked harshly, ignoring the last part of Darilas' statement.
"The Carussa of Tunon," it was silent as Taura allowed that to sink in. Somehow she knew that the decision was not in her hands. A feeling of rightness fell over her as she considered Darilas' words.
"I feel as if I have no choice," she finally sighed. Darilas chuckled.
"Fear not little one, the Goddess has ways of rewarding those faithful to her and their destiny." Some how that brought little comfort to Taura.
"Your Highness," the Captain Chilton said bowing. "The Palace is secure, there are patrols sweeping through the city streets. The treasonous rebels will soon be brought to face the High Blood Throne," pride shone in his face as Baran's plan to surround the Palace with Tunonien had helped avoid a lot of senseless slaughter.
"Any word from Lord Baran?" Ehlan asked from her seat on the High Blood Throne.
"He is still searching with Lord Joli for the Queen and Maybor."
"Thank you Captain, your loyalty becomes you," Captain Chilton swallowed hard at the thinly veiled threat in Ehlan's voice and eyes.
"Your Highness," came an almost timid voice. Councilor Isyk stepped forward. He cleared his throat nervously. Despite his mousy manner, Isyk was quite shrewd.
"In light of the information that Lord Baran has provided," he began.
"Your Majesty," Baran's loud voice cut through the crowd.
Taura gasped at his blood soaked clothes, a long tear from his shoulder to his wrist revealed a long ugly wound. His sword was still drawn and was soaked in blood. His eyes widened slightly in surprise at seeing Serina standing near the Throne. He searched out Taura; his eyes though were unreadable. Baran turned back to the Throne.
"The Queen and her traitorous Councilors have escaped. I have a platoon searching for them following their tracks."
"Where are they headed Baran?"
"Toward Niam," he spat to the astonishment of those present.
"It is true then," Isyk mumbled softly. "Your Highness, in view of what we have been told and the information Lord Baran has provided us, it has become clear to us that our Queen and her advisor, the High Councilor Maybor have betrayed us. It is also evident that they have given themselves to Daimys. In looking through the documents provided by Lord Baran we find irrefutable proof of their guilt," Ehlan watched him carefully. Everyone in the room listened intently.
"In light of all this, we the High Council would be honored if you would ascend the High Blood Throne."
"The High Blood Throne is mine by right of birth," Ehlan began quietly. "By rights of law it is mine, only if the High Council declares it so, if the reigning monarch is not deceased." By explaining the law, Ehlan made sure everyone knew of her right.
"By Birthright and by law, I, Ehlan of House Amarilis, declare the High Blood Throne as mine. I swear by the Goddess to uphold the laws of the land and to rule fairly and justly, as is my right by birth and by law," she stated formally her voice ringing through the room. It was silent in the room.
"Long live Queen Ehlan!" came the first shout, followed by more shouts and raised swords. Somewhere a bell began to toll. Serina looked on with a smugly joyous expression. Taura thought she could hear the roar of thousands of voices raised in tribute to Ehlan.
"So it is ended," Baran said relieved, joining Taura and Darilas. Taura, whose eyes were locked with Ehlan's green ones, knew he was wrong, she felt it in her very soul.
"No, Baran, it is just beginning," Darilas told him, her eyes watching Taura.
The End of Book One
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