Prophecy Story Index || The Sentinel Fan Fan Fiction

Time's Circle
by Becky
August 1998

He knew it was a dream.

Running footsteps echoed in long hallways, sounds hitting the walls and high ceilings. An urgency of danger. The fear of being late. A knowledge of secrets revealed and lives lost. Slow motion passes of faces blurring to the sides, mouths agape with surprise - with shock - with wonder - with worry. Time ticking away with every moment.

Because it was a dream, one would think there was no cause for fear - for concern. It was only a dream.

Tall doors appeared, both open, inviting. Voices and laughter floated from within. Voices unknowing of fear and laughter uncaring of danger. Familiar faces looked toward him as he entered. Smiles greeted him, hands outstretched in welcome. He moved closer. The room shifted, stretching beyond him immeasurably. He reached out, mouth opening in a warning.

However, it wasn't only a dream. It was his dream.

Light flashed. Shadows fell. The room tilted. Yells of anger, of betrayal, of anguish. Swords clashed and clanged, sparking and sliding together in a concert of rhythm and sound. Darkness overwhelmed him. He fought to see, to understand, to identify faces and voices, to separate the chaos bombarding him. But a loud buzzing overrode everything. Then all fell silent.

And his dreams were never just dreams. They were foretellings, visions of what could be.

Dark as death. Cold as an ice-covered stream. Silence more deafening than a land void of all life. He screamed into the cold darkness, but heard nothing -- not even his own heartbeat, his own breathing, or his own voice. He cried out again, with more desperation, panic overcoming his reason that it was only a dream.

They were also visions of what must be.

He spun in the darkness, clutching his arms to his body, swallowing down the terror that loomed and threatened at the edges of his sanity, taunting him with lurid images of death. The silence shoved him to his knees, weighing on him, crushing his very soul, whispering to him that he had been left alone, forever alone.

His dreams were prophecy.

An echo of sound. A reverberation of voice. The shock and the suddenness of it sent him backwards. He fell. Released. The darkness erased by a silver flash of light. And he forgot....



The call was accompanied by a hard shake, and Blaen raised his head, eyes blinking blearily up at the blurred figure standing next to him. "Hngh?"

A familiar low chuckle, then, "Well, that certainly sounded intelligent. Are you awake now, kid?" The hand squeezed his shoulder again.

Blaen rubbed one hand over his eyes, then blinked a few more times. Finally Jydan's face swam into view -- including his much amused smile. "Yeah, yeah, I'm awake." Man, what a wild dream -- or at least, what I can still remember. Only a vague feeling of intense darkness still hung in the back of his mind. Shaking the residual eeriness away, Blaen focused on the present, working on answering more important questions. Like where exactly I am. And why I'm here. Behind Jydan, he saw dozens of tall wood shelves, all stacked high with books and volumes. Oh, I'm in the Library. Right, right. He glanced down at the table to see a large open text pushed some ways in front of where he must've fallen asleep.

Following his train of thought with ease, Jydan commented quietly, "At least you had the presence of mind to move the book. Don't think Dorien would've appreciated you drooling on the pages while you snoozed."

Blaen glared at his friend. "I do not drool when I sleep."

Jydan laughed and ruffled Blaen's hair. "Whatever you say."

Rolling his eyes, Blaen swatted away Jydan's hand before leaning back in his chair to stretch. He noted the high windows were dark as he did so and asked, "How late is it anyway?"

"You missed supper. And Dorien's study group."

"Was that tonight?"


Blaen dropped his head back to the table, thunking his forehead against the wood surface a few times. "Oh, man, I was supposed to help him with that."

"Yup, you sure were." Jydan patted his shoulder. "When you didn't show by the time it was more than half over, Dorien got a little worried and sent word to me. Seeing as Melaani was with him, he figured you'd be in the Library somewhere, predictably buried in some dusty old book." He glanced around and shook his head. "I had no idea this place was so big -- especially when you're looking for one person -- a sleeping person -- in the midst of books and shelves and tables with no help. Fortunately I'm good at finding lost things."

Snorting, Blaen lifted his head again. "Thank you so much. Next time I'll be sure to leave a trail of breadcrumbs."

Jydan tapped a finger to his lips, then shook his head. "Nah. Better make it something that won't attract bugs or animals."

"Such as?"

"Oh, I don't know. Small rocks, buttons, hair ribbons."

Blaen stared at him a moment, then burst into laughter. "Hair ribbons, he says. Like I have access to such things." He went on, muttering as he stood and gathered up the scattered books on the table.

Jydan chuckled and stepped aside to let Blaen finish up. He'd found early on that trying to help his partner or Dorien with their books got him more glares and sighs of impatience than thanks, so now he just waited to be told to do something if they needed help. More often than not, Blaen used him as a packhorse to cart heavy tomes back to their quarters; he also was handy to reach those books out of Blaen's reach on the higher shelves.

Leaning against the table, Jydan crossed his arms, staring at the books Blaen was neatly stacking together. "So, what are you studying now? More histories?"

"Mostly. Since Rishondan got here last month, I've been reading more about Dani. The man may've not been a scholar in the strictest sense, but he knew the most about Seth and Bornathian politics. Very intelligent." Blaen paused a moment, pursing his lips. "There's actually been some debate recently about just who he was. It started before Rishondan got here, but his arrival further fueled it. Was Dani really that self-sacrificing by staying in Bornath or did he simply take the easier path by staying, maybe too chicken to leave? How much did he really help?" He shrugged. "Quite interesting actually, even if I don't agree with a lot of what the 'scholars' are saying."

"What do you believe?"

Blaen's eyes went past Jydan as he said quietly, "I believe he was a man who got caught between his love for his country and his own lost dreams. And in the end, he may have been the most heroic of us all."

Jydan let those words hang in the air between them for several moments before he nodded silently. "I ... see. You'll have to tell me more about Dani sometime. Sounds like a good man."

"He was."

Changing the topic as Blaen turned back to the table, Jydan pointed at the largest book, a huge thing with a cracked leather cover and spine. "And that one? Don't tell me that's about Dani. Bornath maybe, but nothing recent."

Blaen touched the book. "No, not Dani or even Bornath. Something else totally different." He looked up at Jydan. "Remember that bit of prophetic text I showed you a while back -- the thing in the book about Seyna?"

Jydan frowned, squinting. "Vaguely. If I remember correctly, you and Dorien were trying to find more on it. And I thought you decided to leave it alone."

Shrugging, Blaen looked back at the book, fingers stroking the cover. "I tried. But I can't. It's a puzzle I can't resist."

"Hmm. Seems you resisted well enough to fall asleep."

Blaen paused in reaching for the stack of books. "Well, if a certain Guard Captain hadn't kept me for so long this afternoon in the practice hall I wouldn't be so tired."

Jydan grinned, clearly unrepentant. "Just doing what I'm paid for."

"What you're paid for, my foot. I don't remember agreeing to be part of that. Here." He dumped the books into Jydan's arms, who had been waiting for just such a move. Blaen picked up the large text by itself, holding it protectively to his chest. He started walking toward a distant set of shelves. "Come on, you can help me put this stuff away."

Shifting his grip on the books, Jydan obediently followed his tayaerra into the depths of the Library. "Coming, Master."


Melaani looked up from placing the last few books on the shelves when she heard two very familiar voices coming toward the work room. Jydan and Blaen. Wonder if Jydan really did find Blaen in the Library like Dorien thought he would. A chuckle from across the room got her attention and she glanced over to see Dorien grinning at her over the heads of a few remaining students. She returned the grin as they both listened unabashedly to the approaching voices arguing -- nicely -- about some kind of training Jydan wanted to start using on the guards and soldiers. Something about Liralen showing him some new fighting techniques from Ysindra. Melaani shook her head in amusement - those two never stop - and turned back to the shelf, shoving the books together neatly before adjusting the book end.

"I'm telling you, Jydan, that training won't work with most of the recruits. Liralen's ... different." Blaen hesitated on the last word.

"What do you mean she's different?" Jydan sounded a tad confused, maybe even a little indignant to Melaani's ears. She frowned, hoping that the two men weren't heading for a full head-on argument. She'd seen Blaen good and mad at Jydan once and hoped never to see it again.

"It's not that I don't like her, I do. It's just, well, she fights differently, moves differently, than anyone else I've ever met, including Kell." His words tumbled out almost too fast. "I just don't know that you could teach the guards to fight like she does. It would take years of training and loads of dedication. I don't think most of the guards want that."

Silence met Blaen's statement and Melaani stepped toward the door just as the two men walked in. Jydan's face was contemplative and Blaen's a little worried. Not wanting to disturb them before they came to an agreement, however tentative, Melaani waited, watching, holding her breath along with Blaen.

Finally, Jydan nodded. "Yeah, I see your point. Maybe I'll ask her about any less advanced techniques. Some of what she does looks easy."

Blaen smiled, relief evident in his eyes. "Yeah, some of it. Just not most of those fancy two-sworded moves I've seen her pull on you from time to time. Nasty stuff." He shuddered dramatically.

Jydan laughed. "Hmm. It is that." He tapped a finger on his lips. "Maybe I should just ask her to teach me those moves."

"Now that sounds more reasonable to me." Blaen moved away, heading toward Melaani, his eyes sparkling with mischief. "After all, we wouldn't want you getting lax on your swordwork or anything."

Jydan swatted out at Blaen's retreating form but missed.

Melaani laughed silently at both of them, shaking her finger at Blaen before sketching a quick 'hello' in the air just moments before Blaen drew her to him to kiss her. Eyes closed, hands resting on his shoulders, Blaen's arms around her waist, she couldn't help but feel quite giddy. This is the life I have always wanted. Good friends, quiet place to live, wonderful music, and a gorgeous man who cares about me.

Blaen pulled back, leaving his arms around her waist, a broad smile on his face. Opening her eyes, Melaani returned the smile, ignoring the stifled titters of amusement from the few students just across the room. Let them laugh. Life is too good to be bothered with them right now.

"I see Jydan found you. In the Library, like I thought?" Dorien's voice came softly, questioning Jydan.

Blaen turned, keeping one arm around Melaani's waist. He nodded. "Yeah, in the Library. I am so sorry, Dorien. I was reading, lost track of time, and fell asleep."

Dorien raised an eyebrow. "You fell asleep? While reading?" He looked at Jydan for confirmation.

The guard captain nodded, lips twitching in amusement, arms folded across his chest as he leaned against a wall. "Yup. Caught him drooling on table."


Dorien laughed, shaking his head at the loud comeback and at Blaen's rather inventive muttering about his mercenary friend. He turned back to his last few students, dismissing them. As they left, Linet, in a full dark green skirt and loose white peasant blouse, entered, inclining her head at the greetings from the students, graciously ignoring a few very wide-eyed looks. Melaani watched, her eyes dancing with unspoken laughter as Linet's eyes found her. Those poor students probably don't have a clue as to why the Princess would be down here. But no doubt they'll get someone to fill them in. She sketched a greeting to Linet as she walked further into the room.

"Melaani, Jydan, Blaen," she paused a moment, then added in a slightly softer tone, "Dorien. I didn't expect to find you all here so late."

Dorien explained. "The study group ran a little later than expected and Melaani stuck around to help me clean up. Those two," he gestured to Jydan and Blaen, "only just arrived a few minutes ago."

Linet nodded, stopping at Dorien's side. "Hmm." She sat on the edge of a table, fingers curled loosely around it. "So, Jydan, how's Liralen working out?"

Jydan inclined his head. "Very well, actually. She's an excellent fighter. I have to admit being a little surprised at how quickly she's fit in with the rest of the troops, but then Blaen says that's because she beat me in our first swordmatch."

"And the second and third ones," came Blaen's gleefully whispered response.

With a glare at his friend, safely out of reach on the other side of the room, Jydan continued. "Something about earning respect, I think he said. In any case, she's well-liked and good with the female recruits and guards." He paused, then grinned. "And I can get along with her."

Linet nodded. "Hmm. Good, good. I'm glad she's working out. I always thought you needed another swordmaster, a female one, to help out. But since Kellessan was out of the question..." She shrugged, shifting her eyes over to Dorien. "Not that the idea wasn't appealing, especially after sitting in formal court all day." Making a face, she shuddered dramatically.

The three men laughed softly and Melaani grinned widely. Dorien patted Linet's hand, chuckling as Linet rolled her eyes, muttering, "Such sympathy."

In the distance, bells began tolling the hour. With a muttered curse, Jydan pushed away from the wall. "I hate to laugh and run, but it's my watch at the gate in a few minutes."

Linet blinked. "You take watches, Jydan? I wouldn't think the Guard Captain would need to do such things."

"We all do our part. And I don't ask my troops to do anything that I'm not willing to do. I don't want to be late, so I'd better go."

Melaani nudged Blaen covertly, making barely noticeable motions with her hand, short-handing her signs. 'Go too. D&L want/need to be alone.'

Blaen nodded and pulled Melaani's arm through his. "We'll be heading out as well. See you two later. And, Dorien, again, I'm sorry about tonight."

Dorien waved it away, smiling. "It's okay, Blaen. It was worth it just to hear that you fell asleep in the Library."

Blaen rolled his eyes and moved with Melaani to the doors, following Jydan's taller form. Behind him, he heard Linet laugh softly, questioning, "He fell asleep? In the Library? That's a first...."

Outside the workroom, Blaen muttered under his breath. "I am never gonna live that down, am I?"

Melaani shook her head, eyes sparkling gleefully.

Ahead of them, Jydan turned back slightly, grinning. "Nope. He forgot the drooling part, though. Maybe I should remind him." He made an abortive move back toward the room, but Blaen stopped him with his free hand on Jydan's chest, shoving him away.

"Uh-huh, I don't think so. You've already had your fun for today. Aren't you supposed to be guarding something?"

Jydan laughed and turned to continued walking down the hallway. Blaen and Melaani followed.

After a few moments, Blaen tilted his head to look at the woman at his side. "So, did she tell you yet?"

Melaani shook her head, fingers moving in the air. 'Not yet. I do keep finding her smiling at nothing though. She tells me she's just thinking. But she won't tell me about what.'

Blaen laughed. "I wonder how much longer they're gonna keep it a secret."

Melaani shrugged. 'They'll tell us when they're ready. You know Linet, she doesn't like that much attention. And announcing that," her sign cut through the air sharply, "will definitely get her attention. Her and Dorien both.'


"What are you two talking about? What secret? And who is they?"

Melaani looked up as Jydan slowed down to let the two of them catch up to his longer strides. Sandwiched between the two men, she felt noticeably shorter. And somehow immeasurably cozy. She shared a grin with Blaen, etching into the air, 'He doesn't know yet?'

"I don't know what?" Jydan's reading of Melaani's signs had improved in the last few weeks with Blaen's patient instruction. He still tended toward waiting for Blaen or Linet to interpret for him, but he was learning. He frowned at the amusement on the younger couple's faces. "What?"

Blaen finally answered. "Linet and Dorien. Haven't you noticed anything about them that's a little ... different maybe?"

Jydan shook his head. "No, not really. Should I?"

Melaani nodded as Blaen went on. "Yes, you should." He looked around, then whispered, "They're engaged."

Jydan stopped in the hallway, blinking, then shook himself and started walking again. "Okay. So they're engaged. Why haven't I heard about this?"

"Because they haven't told anyone yet. I think they're waiting for something or maybe they just want to have the time to themselves for a little bit longer. You know once it's announced, they'll never get a moment's peace. They'll probably find themselves hustled off to be married in the next week with requests to, uh," Blaen chuckled, "beget the next heir as soon as feasiblely possible. No private lives of their own left."

Jydan made a face, grunting in agreement. "Yeah." He eyed his partner and the smiling woman between them. "So how did you two know if they haven't told anyone yet?"

Melaani grinned, moving her free hand in the air. 'Body language.'

Blaen laughed. "Yeah, that and those dreamy eyes."

Jydan rolled his eyes. "Like you two are ones to talk." Both blinked innocently at him, then at each other, before pressing their cheeks together and staring up at him, eyes rounded in naivety. Jydan shook his head and waved them down a side hallway. "I've gotta get out to the front gate. I'll see you two oh-so-innocent lovebirds later."


Dorien shoved the door to his office closed before turning back to Linet. Her back to him, she was standing at the window that overlooked the garden area outside his office. He took a few moments to watch -- to admire -- her unnoticed, smiling to himself at the melding of Kellessan and Linet he saw. Back perfectly straight, feet balanced to move in any direction at any moment, hands loosely clasped in front of her. Short curls escaped from the loose braid hanging around her face, the skirt and blouse falling in gentle folds around her body, head tilted in feminine poise and beauty. He no longer saw the impatience, the discomfort, the desire to run that had been so prevalent from the moment she'd realized she'd saved her country from Seth only to have to take up her role as a princess again. Not something she'd ever wanted, ever desired, or ever really been trained to be, especially considering that her childhood ended at age 10.

But now....

She truly is both princess and swordwoman; and she has accepted what she is. A daughter of royalty, strengthened by the blood of a protector, a warrior.

Dorien's smile widened as he stepped toward her.

And she's all mine. He chuckled inwardly at that thought, correcting himself. Or rather I should say, I'm all hers.

Wrapping one arm around Linet's waist, he drew her to his side. "So, what did you need to see me for?"

"Do I need a reason?" He could hear the smile in her voice.

"No, but I have a feeling you have a reason anyway."

She turned to look up at him, sliding her arms around his waist, locking her hands behind his back. She tilted her head, eyeing him. "You do, do you?"

"Yeah, call it bardic intuition." He wiggled the fingers of his free hand in the air.

Laughing softly, she shrugged. "You could be right. Or it could be just because I needed to find a book and plan to bribe you into helping me."

Dorien pondered that for a moment, copying her stance with his hands locked at her waist. "Bribe the Royal Bard? Isn't that illegal or something?" He paused. "Of course, it would depend on what the bribe was, I suppose. And since you are the Princess, I wouldn't really be able to say anything about it. I mean, who would believe --"

Shifting a hand to wrap her fingers in the material at the front of Dorien's tunic, Linet pulled him down a bit. Then, raising up just slightly, she shut him up, kissing him hard, laughter rumbling in her throat. He returned the kiss, pulling her closer to him, releasing her only when she began to pull back.

Blinking open his eyes, Dorien cleared his throat a few times, staring into Linet's sparkling eyes. "I think I just got a taste of my warrior."

Linet grinned, then stepped slightly away from him to dig a hand into a skirt pocket. "I did have a reason for coming tonight, though I did need to see you, regardless of reason. I, uh," she hesitated a moment, then plowed on, "have something for you. A betrothal gift." She pulled a small, silk-wrapped bundle from her pocket and pressed it into his hands. Clearing her throat, she stood just a bit s straighter. "I, Princess Linet, sole heir to the Rillandan throne, do give to her betrothed, Dorien, Royal Bard and Historian to the Rillandan Court, this gift of joining. I ask him to accept it as a token of our lives together. As a symbol of the love we share." She paused, then added, "And as a promise of the children that will be born into our lives and house."

Dorien stared at her for a few moments, mouth slightly ajar, barely noticing the slight weight in his hands. The words she had spoken were the ritual words for the formal Rillandan betrothal ceremony between two equals, usually between two royals. That she uses those words in reference to our joining... He swallowed. "Lin--"

She lifted a hand, eyes beseeching him to reply with the correct phrases, to finish the ceremony properly.

He closed his eyes for a moment, reaching into memory and dragging out the proper words. Taking a breath, he opened his eyes again, reciting the words carefully, slowly, hoping he got them right. "I accept the gift of my betrothed in the hope and faith that I will prove worthy of it and of her."

A relieved smile broke out on Linet's face and Dorien abruptly realized how important the ritual was to her. He tried again to ask her if she understood the meaning of what she had done. "Lin--"

Again, she stopped him. "No, Dorien, don't. Please. I do understand the words. I know what they mean and I know what I've done." She lifted her chin, eyes stubborn. "You are my equal. End of discussion."

Dorien watched her a moment, then nodded in acquiescence to her wishes, moving his eyes down to look at the bundle in his hands. Carefully, he peeled back the thick green silk, slowly revealing a silver cloak pin of intricate design. He picked it up, holding it in front of him. This looks vaguely familiar. Wait, wait... His eyes widened as he recognized a much more decorative and stylized version of the sword cloak pin that he last saw with Kellessan just before her battle with Seth.

"Do you like it?" Linet's voice was soft, a little hesitant. "I wanted to honor the tradition in my family. I wanted to remember what it was that brought us together. And I wanted you to truly understand how much I love you and want you to be at my side."

Stepping closer to her, Dorien pulled her to him, cupping on his other hand on the back of her head, burying his fingers in her hair. He pressed his lips to her forehead, whispering, "I do understand, Lin. I do. Thank you." They stayed together for a moment, then Dorien pulled back, a smile on his face. "And speaking of betrothal gifts..." He stepped around her to his desk and reached for a top drawer. Linet turned slightly to watch him and he looked up at her, shaking a finger at her. "Ah-ah, no peeking. I want this to be a surprise."

With a chuckle, Linet turned away. "Okay, surprise away."

Grinning, Dorien carefully placed the cloak pin on the desk, then opened the drawer. Inside rested a small wooden box. Nudging the drawer shut, he stepped back over to stand behind Linet. "Now I know this may not be quite your style, but I didn't think a jeweled dagger would go over real well with the royal court." He slid open the box lid and carefully withdrew a long, silver-chained necklace.

Linet rolled her eyes. "Oh, I don't know, might be good for them to get a little disturbed."

Dorien laughed. "You have an evil mind, Lin." He paused, setting the box on his desk. "Okay, close your eyes."

Linet did as he asked without hesitation. "They're closed."

He raised the necklace up and over Linet's head, letting the pendant rest on her chest. Automatically her hands went up to touch it, although her eyes remained closed.

Dorien whispered into her ear as he fixed the clasp on the necklace. "I, Dorien, Royal Bard and Historian to the Rillandan Court, do give to his betrothed, Princess Linet, sole heir to the Rillandan throne, this gift of joining. I ask her to accept it as a token of our lives together. As a symbol of the love we share. And as a promise of the children that will be born into our lives and house." With gentle hands, he lifted her hair out of the circle of the chain, taking care to avoid any snags. Then, resting his hands on her shoulders, he squeezed lightly, his sign to her that she could look.

Linet took a breath and opened her eyes to look at the pendant cradled in her hands. Two hearts, intertwined with each other, a single red gem shared between them, stared back up at her. She ran one finger over the delicate work, then shifted in Dorien's light embrace to meet his eyes with hers. Smiling, she replied back to him with the ritual words.

"I accept the gift of my betrothed in the hope and faith that I will prove worthy of it and of him."

Dorien returned her smile, then asked quietly, "Does this mean we're announcing our engagement?"

"Yes, it does." She paused, then continued, "Tomorrow, though, at mid-morning court. Not tonight. Tonight, I just want to spend some time with you, maybe look at the stars or something." She touched his face, stroking down a cheek with one finger. "Tonight, I want to be just Lin one last time before the councilors descend on us and take away our privacy." She made a face.

He chuckled, swooping down into a low bow. "Your wish is my command, milady. Just let me get my cloak." Grabbing the cloak from the back of the chair, he draped it over his shoulders. He moved to get the pin, but Linet beat him to it.

"Let me."

Dorien stood still as his betrothed carefully affixed the pin at the top of his cloak. When finished, she smoothed her hands over his shoulders, a smile of pride on her face. Looking at him, she opened her mouth to speak, but Dorien placed a finger over her lips.

"I know. I love you too." He offered her his arm. "Shall we?"

Nodding once, Linet slipped her arm through his and they walked out the office side door to the darkened garden beyond.


Jydan stood at the front gate of the palace entrance, his eyes keeping a continuous scan of the surrounding area, his ears open to unfamiliar noises. Late evening traffic had nearly disappeared with the descent of the dark of night on the city. A few night workers strolled by on the way to their jobs. Every so often a traveler would stop to ask directions of Jydan to the nearest inn. Obligingly he would point them in the right direction, thankful one of the first things he and Blaen had done after deciding to stay in Brightstar was to tour the city and find out where everything was.

He smiled to himself. Everything, including every herb and book seller in the area, plus a few shadier places I didn't think Blaen knew existed. Kid's still got some surprises up his sleeve. No matter, I've still got a few of my own...I think. Frowning over his own uncertainty, he shook his head and continued his watch, alert for any sound beyond the low fog.

A small noise, feet sliding over gravel, grabbed his attention, and he stiffened, hand going to the sword pommel over his shoulder. "Who goes there?"


A few moments later, the red-haired swordswoman materialized out of the night, fog swirling around her ankles. She smiled at Jydan, her steps slow and easy as she approached him.

Jydan relaxed, removing his hand from his sword. "Liralen? What are you doing out here?"

She gestured behind her. "Oh, I was taking a look around the city, talking to folks here and there, just seeing what there is to see."

He smiled. "Ah, an investigative tour. A mercenary tool."

Grinning, she nodded. "Exactly." She leaned up against the wall next to him, arms crossed over her chest. "So, tell me, Guard Captain Jydan, why are you out here? Shouldn't you be keeping some beautiful woman company or some such thing?"

Jydan laughed, shaking his head. "No, I'm afraid not. The Rillandans are still a little hesitant to trust a foreigner, any foreigner, even if they do let me train soldiers. And as for why I'm here, I'm standing watch, just as any of my troops would do. I will not put myself above them in doing watches."

"Commendable. Different, but definitely commendable."

Silence reigned for a few minutes, disturbed only by the distant sounds of the occasional voices, the calls of nightbirds, and a few dog howls.

Finally, Liralen shifted and asked, "So, did you find Blaen?"

Jydan snorted. "Yeah, I found him. He was in the Library, asleep on a book." Amusement colored his words. "Well, not on the book actually, but close enough." He glanced over at Liralen. "Sorry I had to run out of the practice like that. Dorien was concerned since Blaen hadn't shown up and the study group was something he'd help arrange. Turns out he got caught up in reading, lost track of time, then fell asleep."

"Does he do that a lot? Losing track of time while reading, then falling asleep?"

Jydan paused for a moment, then answered, shrugging. "Often enough." He grinned. "But it's normal for him, getting caught up in reading and studying, then losing track of time. The falling asleep part he blamed on me, said I kept him in self-defense practice too long."

Liralen frowned. "I don't remember him being there."

"Hmm? Oh, no, not at the regular one. He and I usually practice alone, one-on-one. He's not a soldier and has no desire to be. He's used to the way I teach and I know how far I can push before I hurt him too badly."

After a moment, Liralen added, "And since he's dironan, he wouldn't be able to handle physical contact with someone who didn't understand how his gift works, that he would pick up on how they're feeling."

"Correct." Jydan nodded. "Not to say he doesn't have friends among the guards. He's picked up more than one helpful tip on how to deal with, how did he put it, big bullies like myself. Sometimes I think he finds those little tips out so he can brag to Melaani later how he threw me or something."

Liralen's loud laughter echoed around them, rolling right over Jydan's melodramatic, put-upon, drawn-out sigh. After calming down, she spoke between residual chuckles. "I'm sorry, Jydan. The image..."

He waved a hand in the air, grinning. "No, it's okay. I'm quite used to it."

She stared at him, tilting her head a little. "Blaen's like a brother to you, isn't he?" Her voice was soft, the words more of a statement than a question.

"Yes, he is. A chosen brother." He left it at that, not wanting to get into the tayaerra aspect of it, preferring, as did Blaen, to keep it quiet, not wanting it to be exploited or misunderstood.

"So are you ready to add a sister to the mix as well?"

He frowned, thrown off-track by the comment. "A sister? Oh, you mean Melaani."

"Well, they are headed in that direction, aren't they?"

Jydan nodded, a smile curling up one side of his lips. "Yeah, they are. I don't know that they know it or have admitted it to themselves yet, but they are. I may not notice other people's relationships as much, but I always know what is going on with Blaen. He just doesn't think I do."

Liralen nodded, eyes looking past him as a pair of dust-stained travelers, a young couple, came up to them. Jydan paused to welcome them to Brightstar and give them directions to the nearest inn. After sending them on their way, he turned back to Liralen, a smile on his lips.

"Newlyweds on their first trip away from home. Got a little turned around on the road and very glad to see civilization."

"I would imagine." She looked up at him, eyeing his tall form speculatively. He lifted an eyebrow in silent question. She smiled. "You ever gonna find yourself in a situation like that? Married, I mean?"

"You mean after the Rillandans realize I'm not some uncouth barbarian out to steal their wives and daughters?" A depreciating grin lit his features.

Liralen grinned back at him, nodding. "Yeah, after that."

He rolled his shoulders, shifting the weight of his sword slightly. "I suppose. Eventually. I don't want to make Blaen feel uncomfortable in his own home and he would if I decided to get married at this point in time. When Blaen and Melaani finally decide to stop going at a snail's pace, they'll probably get married that day and find their own house the day after. And when that happens, well, by then, maybe some prospects will pop up without the worried and protective fathers attached to them." Jydan paused, gesturing at the palace behind him. "Besides, I never expected to be working more or less permanently in one place. I'm a mercenary. Mercenaries don't think long-term."

"What about Kellessan?"

Jydan raised an eyebrow. "What about her?"

Liralen nodded toward his sword. "Seems like the two of you would make a pretty good pair. Both swordfighters, both mercenaries, both devoted to protecting Rillanda."

Jydan's mind went blank. Now what? After a moment, he said slowly, "Maybe, yeah. But I want to stay here. And she doesn't like to stay anywhere for very long. It'd be a rough marriage, too rough." He glanced at Liralen for a moment, hesitating, then decided to ask anyway. "What about you, Liralen?" As long as we're on the topic.

She grinned, a mischievous and amused spark in her eyes. "Me? Didn't know I was a prospect for you."

Surprisingly, Jydan felt himself flush in the darkness, laughing a little nervously. She can't possibly know.... "No, no, I meant are you planning to get married sometime?"

Wrinkling her nose in seeming distaste, Liralen said, "Oh, I don't know. I doubt it. Most men I've met want me to put down my swords and have babies the rest of my life." She grinned. "Present company excluded, of course."

"Of course." He inclined his head in understanding. His eyes drifted past her face to the twin sword pommels visible above her shoulders. Speaking of her swords.... He gestured toward her nearest shoulder. "I was wondering... I've never gotten the chance to look at your swords up close. Blaen tells me they're quite interesting. May I?"

Liralen paused, one sword halfway out of its sheath. After a moment, she continued, pulling it free, then turning it pommel-first to Jydan. "You say Blaen thought them interesting?"

Taking the sword and watching the firelight from the bright gate torch flicker off the blade, Jydan nodded. "Yeah, he had a good long look at one of them that first day you were here. Something about runes." He looked at Liralen. "That kid has a thing for anything old and written, whether in books, on stone, or on swords."

Liralen nodded. "Ah, the runes. Yes. Both swords have runes inscribed on the blades, markings of a talanayran sword. According to Ysindran legend, each set of swords was created with one last bearer in mind, that the markings tell of that person, that the swords and bearer are destined to join together at some point." She shook her head. "Legends, stories, and tales. Sometimes I wonder how people manage to live with such nonsense hanging over them day after day, especially if they believe it."

Jydan didn't say anything, thinking of Kell and her sword Lachiellian. He'd seen first hand what she and that sword could do together. And he'd heard Dorien's songs and tales of Kellessan and her destined sword too many times to dismiss what Liralen called "nonsense." But then who am I to decide what someone else wants to believe? Instead, he focused on Liralen's sword.

"This is beautiful craftsmanship. Solid balance. Sharp edges. Good steel." He angled the sword slightly, watching the flowing runes waver in the torchlight. He ran a finger over the flat of the blade carefully. "Blaen was right. There are a lot of runes on this." He tilted the sword even more, entranced and intrigued by what he saw. "I don't know that I've ever seen a sword quite like this. Do both swords have the same patterns of runes on them?"

"Mostly, yes. A few are different." Liralen edged closer to him, pointing him to a rune near the crosspiece. "This one has always intrigued me. My teacher told me what a few of runes meant, but most of the understanding of the runes has been lost over time."

Jydan squinted at the small, swirling rune as it reflected the flames behind and above him, touching it lightly with one finger. Half under his breath, he commented, "Not even Lachiellian has this many runes on it."

"Lachiellian?" Curiosity tinged her quiet voice. "What's that? Another sword?"

Jydan paused a moment, still staring at the runes. "What?" Doesn't she know? That sword is in most of Dorien's war ballads. He shook off his absorption with Liralen's sword, then handed it back to her. "It's Kellessan's sword. I thought you would recognize the name from various ballads."

While sheathing her sword, Liralen pursed her lips in thought. "I guess it does sound a little familiar. I don't tend to listen to ballads very much though. No time."

"Hmm. You know if you're really interested in knowing what those runes say, you might want to ask Blaen. I know some of them have him curious already. He mentioned to me that he could read some of them and others looked familiar. He's probably already added researching them to his to-be-hunted-for schedule."

Liralen hesitated. "Well, I wouldn't want to bother him. He sounds busy enough as it is."

Jydan chuckled. "The kid lives on research. He'll never be un-busy."

"Well, maybe I'll talk to him sometime."

Again, an easy, companionable silence descended on them, marked only by the echo of crickets in the air and the crackle of the torch above them.

Liralen settled against the wall more comfortably, then grinned slyly up at Jydan. "So, is the rumor I hear about the Royal Bard and the Princess true?"

Jydan raised an eyebrow. "What have you heard?"

"That things are getting interesting and we might be hearing, officially of course, about an engagement sometime soon."

Scowling, Jydan muttered, "Does everyone in the palace know about that except me?"

Liralen laughed. "By the look on your face, I would hazard that both the rumor and your statement are true."

Jydan growled in annoyance.


Blaen and Melaani strolled quietly through the long hallways of the palace, talking and laughing -- Blaen with his mouth and voice, Melaani with her hands and eyes. Finding themselves at the entrance to the Ancestor Hall, they paused.

"Haven't been here in awhile. And never at the dark of night." Blaen shook his head, amused that their aimless wanderings had taken them so far from the Bardic Academy.

Melaani shifted, raising her free hand in a question. 'Tell me what you think of the paintings?'

What I think of the paintings? Blaen raised an eyebrow, then nodded. "Okay." Stepping to the side, he grabbed an unlit torch near the wall and lit it from a torch in the hallway. Then, locking his arm around Melaani's waist again, he led her inside the huge, darkened hall. Examination, discussion, and comments about the portraits of the Rillandan royalty led them down the hall. Soft laughter or the occasional sigh of regret accompanied Blaen's words, depending on what the lives of those pictured were like according to the histories Blaen had read.

Finally, they reached the area devoted to the most current rulers, among them the three portraits by Stefan himself -- Randal and Tayna, himself and Raven, plus one of Andrel and Gwyna. They looked at the paintings for a long time, neither saying or doing anything to disturb the moment.

Blaen finally broke the silence. "I saw Stefan in here the other day, looking at these paintings, frowning and scribbling notes on a sheet of parchment. I think he's trying to decide what to do for a portrait of Linet and Dorien."

Melaani grinned. 'No swords, I hope.'

"No, no swords." Blaen chuckled softly. "Not even a hint of a sword, I would think. I think it'd scare the court."

Inner barriers down, Blaen could feel Melaani's amusement roll over him, could almost hear a tinkling laugh echo in his mental ears. How I wish I could hear her voice for real someday. Looking down at her profiled face, he watched the firelight reflect off her golden hair, each strand reflecting back to him with brilliance. She shifted, turning her eyes to meet his. Love flowed over him in soft waves and he pulled her to him, lowering his head to kiss her softly.

Leaning back only slightly, his lips hovering above hers, he stared at her, eyes roving her face.

She lifted a hand, questioning. 'What is it?'

Eyes meeting hers again, he whispered, "Sometimes, Melaani, sometimes I can almost hear your laughter, like little bells of joy ringing in the springtime season." The unspoken wish to hear her real voice, her real laughter, hung in the air between them.

Melaani blinked, then smiled at him, raising her hand to touch his cheek, cupping his face gently. She stroked a thumb over the skin under hand, then mouthed the words 'I know'.

Blaen moved his face under her hand to press a kiss into her palm, returning her smile in silence.

The moment stretched out, then passed quietly and they turned as one to the portraits, Melaani leaning her head against Blaen's shoulder, one hand resting on his where it lay on her waist.

Lifting the torch, Blaen gestured toward the portrait of Andrel and Gwyna. "According to what Raven told me once, that portrait used to have this blackened area over the single candlescone that grew with each year that war with Seth came nearer. It had started to cover Andrel when the war broke out and the portraits were packed up and hidden." He paused, then went on in a quieter voice. "Then, fifteen years later, after Seth was dead, they rehung all the portraits. Raven said they had been worried about this portrait, then the blackness would be complete, that it would be ruined. But when they unwrapped it, they found it as it is now. In perfect condition. The candlescone glowing for all to see."

Melaani touched the base of the portrait frame gently, running a finger of the wood. She asked, 'How did Stefan know what to paint?'

"Andrel. He remembered the moment perfectly and it was his idea to paint this particular scene anyway. And when Dani arrived, well, he told them that the scene was perfect, right down to the last detail. He had been there the night this happened. And for Gwyna, Stefan used Raven for a model since she looks so much like her mother."

'Dani? The councilor and Rishondan's grandfather, right?'

Blaen nodded. "Yes. I'm finding out so much more about him now that the interest in what happened back then is being restirred. There are very few still alive now who were alive then and were old enough then to remember much. Stefan and Raven most certainly. Linet remembers a little. Ryana and her husband Jeran. A few of the guards like Willim and Jamas. And, of course, Camella. A few others appear from time to time. But most of the memories, the knowledge, have been lost."

Melaani looked up at him. 'If anyone can bring together all the histories and stories, it would be you.'

He chuckled. "You sure you aren't biased?"

Her eyes sparkled, hands moving in the air. 'Me? Biased? Of course I'm biased. Doesn't change what I think. You know that Dorien's been .... otherwise occupied lately.'

Blaen laughed again, starting them walking again. "Too true."

Their walk continued for another few lazy minutes, then Melaani brought her hand up to speak again. 'Are you still working on that mystery sentence?'

"Yeah, here and there. I haven't really found much. It's gotta be referring to some kind of prophecy or something, but I can't find any other mention of it or Rhian anywhere else in the Library." Like every trace of them has been deliberately removed.

Melaani frowned. 'That name always sounds familiar to me, but I don't know why.'

Blaen stroked her hand with his. "I know. Sooner or later, you'll remember why. Don't push it. Maybe that particular prophecy doesn't want to be revealed yet. If I learned anything from reaching Arven and Terel's journals, I did learn that."

'Still annoying though.'

He laughed softly, hugging her with one arm.

A gust of wind blew into the hallway from some distant open door or window, making the torch sputter slightly, sending waves of light and dark dancing on the walls. Blaen stared at the kaleidoscope of patterns, feelings of fear and danger reaching up to grab him from the depth of his soul. Struggling a moment, he latched onto the solid presence of Melaani both next to him physically and in his mind. But the fear and danger overruled and threatened to overwhelm him.

What is going on? Since when does the dark frighten me?

Melaani's hand tightened around his as the torch flame flickered again, almost disappearing totally. The ghostly shapes twisted and turned in a parody of a royal dance, figures moving in time to a unheard rhythm. He inhaled sharply, something surfacing abruptly in his memory, something out of a nightmare.

Danger. Fear. Death. Being alone. Darkness. Abandoned. Darkness. Alone. Death.

The torch flame flickered once more, then steadied, crackling softly in the silence of the hall. The memories submerged again, hiding from the light.

Melaani looked up at him, eyes wide. Her concern for him filled his mind. Her hand touched his face, getting his attention. 'What? What is it, Blaen? What's wrong?'

"I don't -- I don't know. I was remembering a dream I had tonight just before Jydan woke me in the Library."

'A dream? What kind of dream?'

He frowned, shaking his head once. "I'm not sure. Not a good one though. Danger. Fear. Death. Alone. Some images. Mostly feelings. It's all sorta confused and jumbled together."

'But you're okay, right? Do you need Jydan?'

Blaen met her eyes, smiling. She knows how important Jydan is to me, how just his presence can rebalance me when something like this happens. And she's not jealous. How'd I get so lucky? "I'm okay. As for Jydan, no, I don't need him. At least not at the moment. Maybe later, if I have the dream again and I can remember more."

Uncertain, Melaani stared at him a moment longer, biting her lower lip. 'Are you sure?'

"Yes, I'm sure. I'm okay." He kissed her forehead. "Come on, I'd better get you upstairs before Linet starts to wonder if I've kidnapped and run off with her lady-in-waiting. Not that it isn't an entertaining prospect."

Melaani blushed and lowered her eyes, embarrassment mixed with pleasure dispersing her worry.

As they turned to head back to the Bardic Academy end of the hall, Melaani asked, 'Anything you've been researching lately?'

"Actually, yes. I got a look at one of Liralen's Ysindran swords once, and it has the most intriguing runes on it ...."


Linet shifted again in her chair, or rather, the smaller throne set to the side of the two heavier thrones Stefan and Raven were currently occupying. The mid-morning court session was coming to its end and with it the announcement that Linet had to make drew closer. Outwardly she kept up her appearance of polite attention and royal bearing. Inside, she was anything but. Her nerves felt on edge, jumping and skittering at every chair squeak and throat clearing. Her heart beat rapidly beneath the heavy formal gown.

I don't want to do this. I don't want to be here.

Only the delicate weight of the necklace against her neck and chest and the fact that Dorien kept meeting her eyes from the nearby councilors' seating kept her from rushing out of the room. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, willing her nerves to calm down.

Kellessan, you've faced barbarians, bandits, thieves, warlords, slavemasters, the occasional mage or two, and Seth. What is your problem with a bunch of councilors and advisors? You're supposed to be unflappable, untouchable, and strongest under pressure.

Another voice whispered, rather maliciously, at her. Yeah, but these people can't be defeated or scared off by a sword. And isn't that why you're so uncomfortable around them? Because one day you'll have to deal with them on a daily basis, much as your parents do now. Isn't that the reason, Kellessan, swordswoman and protector of Rillanda? You don't like them, don't want to like them, and can't relate to them.

She almost made a face, but then stopped herself. Oh, shut up. No one asked you.

And you don't want to think about your parents not being here to rule. You don't want to rule.

Snarling in her mind, Linet shot back. Shut up!

Forcing her attention outwards, she caught Stefan's last few comments to a request from Lady Adala, one of the female landowners in the kingdom and also the last person to request an audience from the royal court.

"We will see what we can do about your request, Lady Adala."

Lady Adala inclined her head in gratefulness, curtsied, then walked swiftly out of the throne room. Linet smiled slightly. Now there is a woman I have got to get to know. No-nonsense, straightforward, intelligent. A shame her husband was killed in the war. I bet they made a formidable pair.

Her father's voice got her attention, dragging her away from her own ideas of how to arrange a meeting with the Lady Adala.

"If there are no further concerns or matters that need to be addressed..."

Linet shifted forward, raising one hand. "Actually, Your Majesties, I have something."

Stefan turned toward her, an eyebrow raised. After exchanging a quick glance with Raven, he nodded toward her. "Very well."

Taking a deep breath, Linet stood, smoothing down the sides of the dark green formal gown. She'd debated all night just how to make the announcement that she and Dorien were formally engaged. Everything from having her parents do it for her to hauling Dorien up and kissing him in full view of court. Finally, she'd decided on short and simple, knowing she'd owed thanks both to Dorien for his lessons in 'royal speak' and to Melaani for her lessons on how to be gracious on what she was about to say.

"For some time, the court has waited for Rillanda's only heir, myself, to marry, so that the succession of Rillandan royalty would be uninterrupted." She raised her hand, stretching it toward Dorien. "And many realized, some to their regret, whom that choice would eventually be." She saw a few cringes among the older councilors, suppressed grins from the younger ones.

That's right. Don't expect me to pull any punches with you guys. You know just who I am. Don't expect changes.

She let her eyes roam over the faces, picking out the ones she knew. At the back, she caught Jydan, on guard duty, watching her, a small twinkle in his eyes. Behind him, peering around the doorjamb of the large throne room doors, she saw two other faces watching -- Blaen and Melaani, both grinning widely and trying to be quiet.

Feeling somehow stronger from the support of her closest friends, she drew herself up and went on, her eyes going back to Dorien. She gestured him forward, holding her hand out to him. "Yesterday, Dorien and I exchanged vows of the formal Rillandan betrothal ceremony, giving tokens and promises of our devotion to one another." Dorien's hand slid into hers and she curled her fingers through his. Ignoring the startled half-gasps that went through the room at her announcement, she focused totally on her betrothed.

Dorien went down to one knee, head bent over her hand still encased in his. His forehead touched the back of her fingers for a long moment, then he lifted his head to kiss her hand, pressing his lips to the skin warmly. His mouth moved silently, his lips forming words meant only for her.

'I love you, Lin.'

And I love you, Dorien, my little minstrel. Smiling, she placed her other hand on his, then tugged him to his feet. "I, Linet, do take Dorien, as my betrothed, to rule equally at my side at the time when I do ascend the throne." She turned slightly, facing her parents, bowing her head. "May it be far from now. Long live the King and Queen."

It was up to the King and Queen to confirm or deny their intent to marry. She had no worries since she knew her parents. And they knew her. She would marry no one else except Dorien. Not because, as some saw it, he was more passive than she and therefore she could rule the marriage and the kingdom without interference. Not because that with their marriage, essentially all the power in the kingdom would be held between them -- Princess-Heir and Royal Bard. Not because Linet was too old and no one else wanted her. Not because she was rumored to be a little on the wild side and no one wanted the responsibility of trying to tame her. Not because she had a rather checkered and nebulous past during the time Seth was in power. Not because Dorien craved the power of the throne. Not because, as some thought, he wanted a strong woman to rule over him. Not because they were doing it to please the King and Queen by marrying Linet off to someone close at hand.

Linet would marry Dorien because he knew her as Kellessan also. He knew all the things she had done, good and bad. He knew the people she'd had to kill, the shadier things she'd had to do in the past to protect her family, to work on getting rid of Seth. He knew her strengths and her weaknesses. He knew her secrets. He knew her temper and her soft-hearted soul. He knew how to talk to her, how to make her listen, how to help her heal.

He knew her.

And he loved her.

And she loved him just as much, if not more.

Stefan rose from his throne, putting out a hand to Raven as he did so. Raven stepped forward with him. They stopped in front of Linet and Dorien. For a moment, they just watched, then smiles crept across their faces. Stefan placed his hand on theirs.

"May you have happiness in your union."

Raven followed, adding her hand in as well. "Our blessings to you both."

A few seconds passed, then the court erupted into a ball of motion and noise. The princess, sole heir to the Rillandan throne, was finally getting married.


Jydan walked quietly around the edges of the large banquet room. Guests filled every corner, mostly ones of noble birth or at least upbringing, since the nobility was still rebuilding itself from the damage inflicted during Seth's reign. Scattered among the nobles were others of a more common birth, but still friends and comrades of the King and Queen. All there to celebrate the impending nuptials of Linet and Dorien, the official engagement of which had been announced only a few days earlier.

He chuckled softly to himself. Not a union some wanted, but one that was very necessary. Not only for Rillanda, but for Linet as well. At least this way, they'll stop bugging her about getting married. He paused, raising a hand to cover his lips which twitched up into a grin. Of course now they'll be after her to have a couple kids. Poor Kell. From swordswoman to mother. I wonder how she's taking all this.

His eyes swept the crowd, looking for the familiar long, dark green, full-skirted silk gown he'd seen Linet wearing earlier. He caught a flash of green on the relative safety of the dance floor and moved away from the crowds to see a little better. Ah, there they are. Leaning against a column, Jydan watched as Dorien, dressed in his formal 'Royal Bard outfit' as Blaen called it, held Linet to him, one arm around her waist, as they moved gracefully over the floor. Both were smiling as Dorien's lips moved, saying something that made Linet laugh softly and lean her head down to rest it on Dorien's shoulder.

"They make quite a couple."

Jydan shifted and looked over at Liralen's voice, a little surprised to see her there. "You didn't have to be at this, you know."

She shrugged. "Oh, I know. But with nothing better to do..." She gestured around her vaguely. "I decided to drop by and see how things were going."

Jydan raised an eyebrow, glancing down her form to the elegant pantsuit she wore. Silk in a blue so deep it was almost black. Stylish, but nothing that will get in her way if she has to move and move fast. Or fight. Efficient. And beautiful. "You just happened to be wearing something appropriate as well?"

Smiling and lightly blushing, she grinned. "Hmm. You are good, aren't you, Jydan. Notice all those little things."

"That is what they pay me for."

She chuckled. "Very well. I did stop to change. I didn't want to stick out too much." She tugged at the cascade of long red hair around her shoulders. "This stuff gets me enough attention as it is. My teacher called it the color of fire."

Jydan nodded, half-raising a hand to touch her hair, then redirecting his move to tug at his tunic slightly. "I can definitely see why." He paused, adding, "You always talk about your teacher. What happened to your parents?"

An old sorrow crossed her face, dimming the light in her eyes. "They died during the occupation, killed in a raid Seth made on our village." Her eyes distanced in memory. "He burned it to the ground. I was on the opposite edge of town, gathering berries for the evening meal. I saw everything from where I hid. One of his soldiers found me and nearly killed me. But I was young and determined to get away and I did."

He touched her shoulder, squeezing it. "I'm sorry. I didn't know. You must miss them."

She laid her hand on his. "Thank you. And I do miss them. So much senseless death."

Jydan nodded, still rubbing his fingers over her shoulder in silent commiseration.

Another voice intruded on the stillness surrounding them. "Jydan, there you --. Oh, uh, am I interrupting anything here?" Jydan turned to see Blaen at his other side, hesitation written on his features as his eyes flitted between he and Liralen. Without pausing for an answer, Blaen rolled on, half-turning away. "Never mind, I can come back later."

Jydan reached out a hand toward his friend, taking a small step away from Liralen, missing the flash of regret that passed through her eyes when his hand slid off her shoulder. Carefully, Jydan grasped Blaen arm and pulled him to a stop. "No, it's all right. What is it, Blaen?"

"Um, okay. Have you seen Melaani around? I haven't seen her tonight yet and I can't seem to find her in this mess."

Jydan lifted his eyes to scan the large room, teasing quietly. "You mean, you can't just reach out with the nifty talent of yours and nab her?"

Blaen smacked Jydan's arm. "No. And you know I can't."

After another few moments, Jydan found Melaani, in a soft yellow short-sleeved gown, at the edge of the dance floor, sitting with Ryana, both watching the dancers, Linet and Dorien in particular. "She's right there," pointing surreptitiously.

Blaen followed the movement and nodded. "Oh, I see her now. Thanks, Jydan."

Jydan held onto his arm a moment longer. "You doing okay in all this?" He gestured around them, indicating the noise and the people.

The younger man nodded. "Yeah. For at least a few good dances. I'll probably leave with Melaani. Don't worry about me."

Jydan leaned down, tugging on Blaen's ponytail, lowering his voice for privacy. "I always worry about you. You know that." He held Blaen's eyes until the younger man nodded once in understanding. "Make sure you stop and tell me you're going so I'll have less reason, okay?"

"Okay." He smiled gently, reaching up to squeeze Jydan's arm. "I will. See you around later then." With that, he bounced off toward Melaani, nimbly avoiding servers, guards, and guests.

Stepping back to lean against the column again, the older man could only shake his head in amusement at the energy level his young tayaerra had. Sometimes I really do have to wonder just where he gets it all.

Next to him, Liralen echoed his thoughts in a quiet musing. "He really never stops, does he?"

Jydan sighed, laughter in his voice. "No, he sure doesn't."


"Are we ready?"

A chorus of quiet affirmatives replied back in the darkness.

"Good. Prepare to move in at my command.""

Slides of metal on leather as swords and knives were drawn from sheaths.


A voice. "Are we sure the one we want is inside?"


Another voice. "How will we know who--?"

"Silence!" Then, "I will know. The trail led here. That is all you need to be told."

Shifting of feet. Quiet breathing.

And waiting.


Ryana looked up as Blaen approached her and Melaani. That young man positively bounces with life. She grinned as he ducked under the arm of a server holding a tray of drinks. Melaani, currently watching the dance floor, shifted her eyes to follow Ryana's line of sight. Then she started to grin as well. Probably just because of Blaen and not because of his antics. Ah, young love. She hid another smile as Blaen stopped before them, sweeping into a low bow.

"My ladies Ryana and Melaani. You both look wonderfully ravishing tonight."

Ryana laughed and Melaani's eyes sparkled with amusement, even as she blushed at the attention.

"I would take both of you out on the dance floor at the same time, but I somehow don't think that's possible. So how will I choose between the two of you? I'm sure if I left one of you here, the other would be snatched up before I returned." He held a hand to his heart melodramatically.

A deeper voice came from behind him. "Well, we couldn't have that. You take one and I'll take the other. Deal?"

Blaen swivelled to see Jeran standing behind him, a small grin on his face. "Which one would you like?"

Jeran made a face, stroking his chin in thought, glancing first at one, then the other. "Hmm. Hard choice. I think," he reached first for Melaani, then shifted over to Ryana, extending a hand, "I think I'll take my lovely wife before she decides I flirt too much."

Ryana took his hand and let herself be raised up, smiling up at her husband as he led her out to the dance floor. "Just you remember that."

Blaen turned back to Melaani, extending his arm. "My lady? May I have this dance?"

Melaani nodded and gracefully rose to her feet to take Blaen's arm, signing in the air with her other hand. 'I've been waiting all night to do just that.'

"Well, wait no longer." He twirled her out onto the edges of the dance floor, grinning rakishly. "A dance you will have."


"Get ready, men. Almost time."

Shifting of feet. Sibilant whispers and grunts.

Quick footsteps and a soft panting. "Sir. Guards taken care of."

"Good. Just a few minutes more."


Camella paused at the side doors leading into the banquet room. She scanned the occupants quickly, looking for a face she could trust, one she knew. Bypassing Jydan and his new female teacher Liralen, she found Dorien and Linet on the main dance floor, both smiling happily, ignoring the rest of the world. Both for once at peace with themselves and each other.

Too bad I'll have to change that.

Ignoring the startled looks from the nearby guests at her casual pants and tunic top -- neither proper for a formal party, especially not the princess' engagement party -- she walked purposely toward the dance floor.


"You still enjoying yourself, Lin?" Dorien's voice came quietly, whispering close to her ear to be heard over the music and voices around them.

Linet lifted her head to meet Dorien's eyes. Smiling pleasantly, she smoothed her fingers down his shoulder to rest lightly on his chest. "Hmm. Yes, I'd have to say I am. Just keep me away from all the councilors and I'll be fine. If I hear one more innuendo about 'future heirs', I won't be held accountable."

Dorien laughed, planting a quick kiss on her mouth. "I can certainly try. Dancing with you is definitely not a chore, though I do have to admit I never knew you liked it so much or could do it so well."

She shrugged. "Comes with the, uh, training I've had in the past. You know..." She tapped at the cloak pin at his neck, fingers gliding over the stylized sword.

"Ah, that kind of training." He nodded in understanding, quickly seeing how dance steps and coordination could be quite helpful both in sword fighting and just plain fighting. "Then I imagine you can do the most interesting of moves."

Laughing, she grinned widely, winking at him. "Yes, but I don't think my parents would want me doing them here. Might scare the guests."

Dorien shook his head in amusement, then drew her head back down to his shoulder, still moving them around on the floor in graceful arcs, somewhat amazed that Lin had given over such control to him without so much as an argument.


"Do you dance?"

Surprised both by the quietly hesitant voice and the question, Jydan pulled his attention away from the room to look at Liralen. He shrugged once. "Yes, some. I don't do it often, but I have on occasion, when the mood ... or the company is right. Why do you ask?"

Liralen smiled, glancing out at the dancers. "Curiosity, I suppose. Dancing has always been one of the few things outside of my mercenary work that I truly enjoy. But it's been a very long time since I've done so. No time. No music. No one to dance with."

"Well, technically, I'm on duty." Jydan straightened a little, tugging on his formal duty, then held out his arm to her. "However, I think we can make a small accommodation."

Pausing only a moment to be sure of his sincerity, Liralen placed her hand on his arm and let him lead her down to the edges of dance floor, near the back of the room.

As they began to dance to the music, Jydan said, "Just so we can continue to watch and not, uh, startle some of the more set-in-their-ways nobility by seeing the Guard Captain and one of his head guards dancing. Might be too much for them. Or so I've been told by Blaen."

Liralen laughed, settling quite comfortably into his arms. "Not only full of life, but irreverent as well."

Jydan only grinned, whirling Liralen around as the current song came to an end. A few moments later, the bards began a quieter song, slower in its beat, more romantic. Jydan didn't hesitate, just simply pulled Liralen closer and swayed to the music.

Resting her head on his shoulder, Liralen closed her eyes, saying softly, "You are quite a good dancer, Jydan."

"So I've been told. Training for swordfighting does have its advantages. A lot of the same moves, just slower."

She lifted her head, smiling up at him. "I find it hard to believe that no woman has snatched you up for herself, even if what you told me before is true." Stroking her fingers idly over his shoulder, she went on. "You're a true gentleman. You're strong, both inwardly and outwardly. You have a solid position with the royal family. You're a wonderful dancer." She shifted her hand to touch his cheek. "You have a beautiful smile to go along with your handsome face." Smiling up at him, she finished quietly. "You're a good man, Jydan. And any woman who doesn't see that is just blind."

Jydan stared down at her, his steps slowing as her green eyes took him in. "Liralen, I..." He paused to swallow, then brought up one hand to cup her face, long fingers ensnaring themselves in her thick, red hair. Slowly, he leaned down, watching as her eyes fluttered closed and her lips parted in expectation.


"I want to find Hinarme and invite him to the wedding." Linet's voice came quietly from his shoulder where she had rested it during the slow, romantic dance music.

Dorien frowned just a little. "Do you think you can find him?"

"I think so. We kept in touch sporadically even after he left." She raised her head, frowning a little. "I haven't heard from him in the last few months. I would worry, but he gets a little preoccupied with his research sometimes. Anyway, no one would have to know just how he is connected to me. No one would recognize him anyway."

"He'll probably hear of the wedding eventually."

She nodded. "He might, yes. But it might be too late. I want him to be here."

Dorien smiled. "Well, then, we'll have to send someone to find him." He paused, frowning. "You aren't planning to go after him yourself, are you?"

"Don't think it isn't tempting, but no, I'm not. I have a few others in mind."

Relaxing a bit, he asked, "Who do you think could do it?"

She continued, relief in her eyes that he was willing to help her. "Jydan could definitely find him, but he can't leave. But I bet Blaen could find him as well since he is a guide. Or Camella."

Dorien opened his mouth to respond when a hand grasped his arm where it lay on Linet's waist. He moved his eyes past Linet and saw Camella standing next to them, worry lighting her eyes.

"Speaking of Camella....what is it? Something's wrong." He stopped his and Linet's movement.

Camella nodded, oblivious to the looks given the three of them by the other couples still swirling around them. "Yes, something is very wrong. We're going to be attacked."


Blaen pulled back a little to look down at Melaani as her fingers tightened on shoulder. "What is it?" He kept them moving slightly, swaying to the music.

Signing close to her body, she said, 'Camella is here.'

He frowned, then turned them slightly to follow the direction she was looking. "Camella?"

Yes, there she was. Talking to Dorien and Linet in rapid, silent words, nothing he was able to hear or even figure out from the distance across the floor. "Maybe we should go see what's up."

Without waiting for a reply and not wanting to cause any undue attention by just striding through the others swirling around them, he started dancing them across the floor --

Danger. Hate. Retribution. Death.

-- stumbling --

Danger. Destroy. Anger. Death.

-- falling -- grasping --

Danger. Darkness. Danger.

-- losing -- drifting -- abandoned --

He never felt Melaani's hands patting at his face or squeezing his shoulders as she tried to pull away from his tight grip. Never saw the look of concern on her face build rapidly into terror when he didn't respond. Never heard familiar voices calling to him, urging him to come back.

To him, all was darkness, blackness, and hollow echoes of endless silence.

Danger. Danger. Danger.

Lost in sensation, his barriers burning down to smoldering ashes, only a memory of what had been, leaving him open to anything. To everything. And to nothing.


An icy tingle spidered its way up and down Jydan's back. Suppressing an instinctual shiver, he shifted slightly and tried to ignore it, not wanting anything to impinge on the moment. But the itch remained, reasserting itself more strongly, poking at him more insistently. Finally, he stiffened and pulled back just before his lips touched Liralen's, muttering under his breath, looking around, trying to find the source of his unease.

Liralen's eyes flew open. "What's wrong?"

"I don't know." Muscles tense, he scanned the large room, picking out his guards, counting them, then looked for the royalty, finding them all accounted for as well. Turning slightly, he looked over the at the dance floor, seeing Dorien, Linet, and...

"Camella? What's she doing here?"

Curiosity and confusion in her voice, Liralen asked, "Camella? Who's that?"

Before Jydan could answer, his eyes fell on Blaen, frozen in the midst of dancers, Melaani trying fruitlessly to get him to move. He swore under his breath and released Liralen, striding rapidly through the guests, ignoring Liralen's quietly alarmed calls to tell her what was wrong. Snagging one of his guards, he rattled off quick instructions. "Check the perimeter. Something doesn't feel right. And take a check call of the guards on duty outside."

"Yes, sir." Quick to obey, knowing to trust Jydan's feelings.

That done, Jydan hurried on his way, both the commotion from the dance floor and the music slowing to a stop telling him that Blaen's condition had been noticed. Just hold on a few more moments, Blaen. I'm almost there.

Unfortunately, he didn't make it.


"Now! It's the distraction we need. Go, go, go!"

Feet stomped. Armor clanged. Voices rose.


Stefan had taken one step away from Raven and his chief councilors when he'd heard the music being played by the bards come to a confused halt. In the next moment, he saw several things. Camella talking to Dorien and Linet. Blaen frozen, eyes wide with unseen terror, holding desperately onto Melaani who couldn't seem to get his attention. Jydan striding through the guests, heading directly for Blaen. Liralen grabbing the arm of a guard as he hurried toward the door, gesturing, a look of confusion and questioning on her face. Councilors, bards, nobles, and guests scattered throughout the large room, some staring quite openly at the tableau in the midst of the dance floor, others still talking away, either ignorant or uncaring of what was happening.

Raven touched his arm, drawing up to stand next to him. "Stefan, what is it? What's going on? What's wrong with Blaen?"

He shook his head. "I don't --"

Loud yells and shouts of "attack" interrupted his words. Men, dressed in leather and armor, barged into the banquet room. Ladies screamed. People ran in all directions at once. Guards and soldiers surged through the crowd, shoving guests down and out of the way. Stefan watched as Jydan slid to a stop, halfway to Blaen. He stared for a moment longer at his friend, then, jaw tightening convulsively, he whirled around and ran into the battle, yanking his sword from its sheath, calling out orders as he went.

That surely must've cost him. He knows Blaen is unprotected.

Stefan's personal guard touched his arm, looking back once at the chaos approaching them. "Come, Your Majesty, we must get you and your wife to safety."

Raven's own guard nodded her agreement. "Yes, please, Your Majesties. This way."

Stefan shook off the guard's hand and pointed him toward Blaen and Melaani. Camella stood in front of them, ready to defend them as Linet and Dorien tried to get Blaen to let go of Melaani and move. "No. Get Blaen and Melaani."

"Your Majesty, please, I must protest. Your safety comes first."

He shook his head, gesturing again to the frozen and in-danger couple. "They need protection more than I do. I know how to use a sword if I need to."

The guard tried one more time. "But, my liege--"

"DO AS I SAY!" Stefan roared, drawing up to his full height.

The guard blanched, nodded once, and hurried away.

Shifting, Stefan looked at Raven's guard. "I entrust you with the safety of my wife, Your Queen. Get her to safety."

Raven protested. "Stefan--"

Meeting Raven's eyes, he laid a finger on her lips, then slid his hand to cup her face, smiling at her gently. "I will see you after this is over, my love. Go now."

She raised one hand to press his hand to her lips, kissing his palm, then nodded, releasing him. "As you wish. I love you, Stefan."

"And I love you."


Linet glanced again at the battle taking place at the far end of the large banquet room. I should be over there, next to Jydan and Liralen, fighting. Her hands twitched for a sword. Any sword. Even a knife.

"You can't do it, Lin."

Dorien's voice was low, a whisper for her ears only. Looking over to meet his eyes, she nodded sharply once, clamping down hard on those feelings of uselessness. Not useless, just different duties now. Focus on what you can do here, Kell. Instead, she turned her attention to Blaen. "Do you know what happened, Melaani?"

The girl shook her head frantically, one hand signing jerkily in the air, the other clutching at Blaen's tunic front. 'Don't know. Just stopped. Started to fall. Grabbed me. Held tight. Doesn't see. Doesn't hear. Doesn't feel. Just shakes, shivers. No voice. Please, Linet, help him. Protect him. Please.'

Linet put a calming hand on Melaani's shoulder, squeezing it. "We're not gonna let anything happen to either of you, are we, Camella?"

The other woman shook her head, half-turned toward them, one eye on the battle which drew minutely closer each moment. "We have to move. Now!"

A guard -- Stefan's personal guard, Linet noted -- slid to a stop next to them. "Agreed. This area is too dangerous. Can we move them together somehow?"

Dorien and Linet exchanged glances, then Dorien nodded. "We don't have much choice here. Just watch our backs."

The guard nodded and joined Camella, his sword out and ready.

Linet turned to Melaani. "Okay, we're gonna have to move you at the same time, probably lifting Blaen. We'll take it slow. Walk when we do." Melaani nodded.

Dorien positioned himself at one side of Blaen and took a deep breath. "I hope this doesn't hurt him for than it helps him. Considering how he is with emotions..."

Linet winced. "I know. But we don't have the time to find another way. Ready?"


"Then let's do it."

Each grasped a shoulder and an arm and began to slowly edge Blaen's stiff form toward the side exit that led to safety. The guard and Camella moved with them. Camella had found a very long, nasty-looking knife somewhere and was holding it out in front of her, ready to fight if necessary.

Stefan appeared at their sides. "Hurry. I think the guards are losing ground."

Linet grunted, teeth clenched as she moved Blaen's rather heavy deadweight. Man, he is heavier than he looks! "Father! What are you doing here? Where's Mother?"

"Your mother is fine. Safe and away."

"Why aren't you?"

"I wasn't leaving without you, my daughter. I lost you once. Never again." His quiet words echoed in her ears, giving her an extra reason to hurry. Just as he didn't want to lose her again, either to enemy soldiers or to the urgings of her own sword-trained heart, neither did she want to lose him in this surprise attack.

Finally, they reached the side door. Stefan shoved it open, holding it and stepping aside as Linet and Dorien began to maneuver the couple inside.

A yell went up from the fighting mess of people. Jerking their heads up, Linet and Dorien gasped, then swore under their breaths, trying to move faster. A hole had opened up, and the enemy had broken through. Their time had just run out.


Jydan shoved back another enemy soldier, swinging his great curved sword down in a fatal arcing blow. Another soldier took his place. How many are there? And where did they come from? And just how did they get in here so easily? He dispatched another enemy, then whirled to defend another few guests, pushing them away from the fighting, yelling for them to get out of the way. His eyes swung past the dance floor, taking half a second to look for his partner.

For a moment, he couldn't find him and his heart skipped a beat. Then he realized that the clump of people shuffling across the floor surrounded Blaen and Melaani, moving them to safety. Mentally thanking Linet and Dorien, he turned back to the battle, yelling out more orders to keep the line. Liralen fought well several feet away from him, dazzling her opponents with her sword skill, even with swords that did not belong to her as she didn't have hers. Her tunic was sliced along one edge and one arm bled from a long cut, but she ignored both and kept fighting.

Kedric, Alain, Tabmoran, Hiri, Belesta, and several others all fought well, showing their excellent skill and well-learned lessons. Grinning both with pride and a touch of battle lust, Jydan jumped back into the fray, energized by the knowledge that his tayaerra would be safe and that his troops were doing well. Well enough to win.

We'll worry later about the hows and whys this happened.

Jydan found himself face to face with the man he assumed was the leader. The large man, a long dark hooded cloak falling around his shoulders, was taller than him by a few inches, scars running down both cheeks to disappear into a heavy beard. He breathed hotly at Jydan at their swords met. "I want the woman, mercenary. Give me her and you can live."

"What woman? And why would I give you anything?" He shoved him back, twirling his sword in a deadly-looking arc. The enemy came back, twisting under the blow effortlessly.

"The woman known as Kellessan."

Jydan laughed. "Then you've come to the wrong place, my friend. She's not here."

"Really. I've heard differently." He charged Jydan, swinging his sword around, clanging it down on Jydan's, forcing him back. He called out to his men. "Push them back! Attack! Attack!"

The hair on Jydan's arms stood on end, the nerves along his spine twinging and spiking. What the--?!? A moment later, he found himself shoved effortlessly to one side as the leader roared past him, sword held high. Blaen! Jydan shook away the momentary daze and pulled himself back into line after two others passed through the gap.

Liralen appeared at his side, a sword twirling in each hand, fighting off enemy soldiers. She yelled, "Did you feel that? They must have a mage in their midst. That was an energy burst."

Jydan nodded absently, looking over his shoulder briefly. Linet and Dorien hadn't made it all the way inside the hidden passageway yet. And they're not going to, not before it's too late. He swore again, this time more colorfully. Jerking his attention back to fight, he located Kedric and shouted his name, waiting for the his second-in-command to shoot him a quick glance before continuing. "I'm going after the leader. Stay here. Keep control."

Receiving a quick, curt nod from Kedric in response, Jydan turned and disappeared, heading toward his friends.


Linet yanked Blaen inside the passageway, at the same time breaking his contact with Melaani. He stiffened even further if possible, his muscles tightening as he curled in on himself. Before Linet could shift him to the side, he bore her down to the ground with a hard thud. Dorien hurried in and grabbed Blaen under the arms and hauled him further in, down the long hallway. Linet yanked herself back up to her feet, motioning to Melaani.

"Go! Go! Follow him."

Melaani nodded once and jogged a few steps to catch up with Dorien and Blaen.

Linet turned back to see the guard just outside the door, fighting off the largest of three men. Camella fought another, and Stefan, having found a sword somewhere, fought the third one.

Camella yelled back. "Close the door! Do it!"

Linet shook her head even as her hand reached for the door to close it. I can't--

Then, before her eyes, the guard flew across the room, swatted like a fly. He slumped to the floor, dead or unconscious, Linet couldn't tell. The big man turned to one side, to where Stefan fought and joined with the other soldier in shoving him back, raising his sword for a killing stroke.

Stefan went down in a blur of steel, cloth, and bright red blood. His sword flew from his hand, arcing point over pommel through the air. Linet, standing in the shadows of the doorway, instinctively put out her hand and caught it as it rushed toward her. Shocked, her eyes fixed dazedly on the slumped figure of her father, her fingers curled around the pommel without thought as it slapped hard into her hand.


Linet's hoarse, angry yell pierced the air, slicing through the chaos and noise, making most of those near her jump. Camella took advantage of the startled yelp of the soldier she was fighting to dispatch him rather efficiently with her long knife, nodding once in satisfaction as his body slumped to the ground.

The big man and the other soldier advanced toward Linet, striding in large steps toward the passageway. Not caring that she could see Jydan, fire and anger in his eyes, rushing them from behind, Linet stood straight and tall in the doorway, fingers clenched tightly around the sword pommel. Let them come! Then, realizing that she couldn't fight in the open, as much as her instincts yelled at her to do so, she backed up further into the hall and leaving the door open, wanting the fight, needing the fight. She kept her one eye on Stefan's body, hoping to see some kind of movement.

Oh, Father....

Only one soldier made it through the door -- the big one -- the leader, Linet decided. Jydan caught the second one, the smaller one, just moments before he entered the doorway and yanked him back out. The big man slammed the door closed, then shoved a heavy belt knife into the doorjamb, effectively jamming it in a close position.

Which left Linet, also once known as Kellessan, to face the leader on her own. She could feel all that Kellessan embodied -- warrior, swordswoman, mercenary, freedom fighter -- come rising toward the surface. And she let it. Welcomed it. Rejoiced in it. Suppressing a rather evil smile, she forced the hot anger and cold sorrow at what could be her father's death away, shunting them to a place separate from Kellessan, separate from whom she had to be to fight. Emotions would only cloud her vision, her duty. She shifted her grip on the borrowed sword, getting the feel of its weight and its length. It definitely wasn't Lachiellian, but it would do.

It had to.

Her honor demanded it.

Her love for her father required it.

The man turned to face her. "Just to be sure we're not interrupted."

The noise of the battle had vanished when the door had closed, leaving them alone in their own little world. Beyond her, she could hear the muted whisperings of Dorien as he spoke to Melaani and to the unconscious Blaen, telling the latter he was about to miss a great battle and wouldn't he be sorry to miss it. She could only hope that her mother and her personal guard were safely away, out of range.

He eyed her form appraisingly, taking in the long, silk gown and the sword hanging in one hand. "You would be Princess Linet, correct?"

Standing tall, Linet asked, "Yes. Who are you and what do you want?"

The man twirled his long, heavy sword in his hand. "I am Gnalaar and I want Kellessan."

She shifted the sword point-up and crouched slightly, suddenly very glad she had chosen such the full-skirted dress to wear that evening. Maybe it'll survive this mostly in one piece. And if it doesn't, oh, well, it'll be good for something later, I'm sure. "Well, it must be your lucky day. You've got her." The seams along the walls dividing Kellessan from Linet gave, splitting wide open. Linet disappeared and Kellessan took over. She kicked off her thin sandals, shoving them to the sides of the hall.

Gnalaar laughed, cackling. "You?"

Kellessan let an evil smile cross her lips, blue eyes dancing with an icy fire. "Yes, me. What? I'm not what you expected? I'm hurt." She twirled her sword in the air, swinging in a few times, finding just the right balance, mentally adjusting her moves to account for the lighter weight. "I'm ready whenever you are, Gnalaar, whoever you are."

He growled. "I've been tracking you down for a long time, Kellessan. My family, my life, all of it, died because of you and your headstrong, self-appointed, selfish mission to save all the little people of Rillanda."

The swordswoman paused only momentarily, still on the defensive, however. "And just who was your family? Thieves? Bandits? Roving mercenaries that took advantage of travelers and weak villages?"

The man crouched low, sword outstretched shaking back the long black cloak from around his shoulders. "We were who the times created us to be. Those who were powerful took from the weak. It's the way it was supposed to be. A way to cull the herds."

Kell curled her lips, shaking her head once. "If that's what your family believed and how they lived, then they deserved what they got."

Gnalaar roared and charged.


With a final swing and a growl, Jydan knocked aside his foe, turning away even as the man slid across the ground to land in a heap near the wall. He strode to Camella's side and dropped to the ground next to her and Stefan.

"How is he?"

Camella pressed harder on the bleeding wound, the light-colored cloths changing bright red under her hands. "I don't know. Not well. It won't stop bleeding and if it doesn't --" She clamped her lips together tightly.

Jydan swore and tore off his outer tunic, handing it to her quickly. "Use this." He looked over his shoulder to see the fighting at the other side of the banquet room finally dying down. "I'll send for a healer. And get you some help."

She nodded, then motioned toward the side door with her chin. "What about the others?"

Rising to his feet, he strode over and pushed at the door with his shoulder. Nothing. He shifted and tried again, fingers curling around the knob, twisting it violently. Still nothing. He shoved at the door again, then pounded on it once, growling in annoyance. "It's jammed from the inside." He laid his ear to the thick door, then backed up, shaking his head. "And I can't hear anything."

"She has a sword."

Jydan whirled to look at Camella, admiring the calm in the young woman's eyes. "I know that. But it's not just her I'm worried about. Blaen--" His voice broke a little before he forced himself to continue. "Blaen's in there. And so is Melaani and Dorien. And Ke-- Linet, she's used to Lachiellian."

Camella smiled just a little, staring at the forbidding door. "Give her a sword -- any sword -- and she will fight." She looked back down at the unconscious king. "And she will win. She does not allow herself to lose."

Deciding to let that comment remain unanswered, Jydan only nodded, walking past her to the other side of the large room. "I'll get you that help now, Camella."


Ducking under a sword blow, Kellessan danced agilely away from Gnalaar's heavier sword, green skirt whirling around her. Thrust and parry. spark Riposte. clang Duck. Breathe. Jump. whoosh Thrust again. And again. Focus. Parry.

Dorien watched from a position in the shadows much further down the hallway. Blaen, curled and minutely vibrating, lay between him and Melaani, his head resting on Melaani's shoulder as they all sat on the hardwood flooring. It's been so long since I've seen this, I'd forgotten how good she is. He glanced over at Melaani and found her watching as well, eyes wide and darting between Kell and Gnalaar, lower lip drawn up between her teeth. One hand still gripped Blaen's arm and Dorien saw it tighten at a particularly loud sword clang. The young man flinched, turning his head slightly to press more into Melaani. But he didn't awaken, didn't make any noise. Dorien frowned. I sure hope Jydan knows what to do. If Melaani can't reach him, then Jydan is the only option.

Turning his eyes back to the drama being played out before them, Dorien wondered how they would explain the sword battle and Gnalaar's inevitable defeat. He inhaled sharply, the warlord's and Kell's earlier remarks suddenly coming back to him.

He knows! He knows who she is.

Dorien stared at his betrothed. Full skirt billowing around her legs, knicks in her arms from contact by Gnalaar's heavier sword, tears and rips on her dress, torch light glistening on sweat-soaked arms and face, sword flashing in the darkness, heart pounding with exhilaration and adrenaline, Kell had discarded everything she had learned and been since Seth's death and the return of her parents to their rightful places. No princess. No royalty. No politeness. No politics. Nothing except her sword, her skill, and her opponent.

What is she going to do? What are we going to do?

The two swordfighters panted heavily, the fight losing its eloquent rhythms as each pressed for a victory. Dorien gasped silently as Kell, barefoot, backed into a hall chair and stumbled, nearly falling. She regained her feet quickly, backing away from Gnalaar's vicious downswing.

Gnalaar chuckled low, advancing upon her, watching her. "Looks like you're out of shape, Kellessan. Been lazing about too much lately. Acting like the proper princess."

Not bothering to answer, Kell pressed forward, doubling her attack, forcing him back. He replied with a flurry of movement, parry away her lighter sword, though not without some fancy moves of his own. Growling, she changed tactics and struck out hard with her sword, forcing him to open himself to a different kind of attack. His sword clear of his body, she struck out with a foot, striking him in the stomach, sending him off-balance. With a loud oof, he fell back against the wall. Kell moved forward, sword ready to attack

But Gnalaar shoved himself forward, charging her, sword held high and firm, his face contorted with a grimace, a yell of attack echoing off the walls. Swearing under her breath at such a foolish mistake, Kell fell back, her bare feet moving quickly on the smooth surface.

Dorien stiffened, jumping to his feet. He's too close!

Kell dropped to the ground, folding her legs under her, probably intending to roll away. Regroup. Attack again.

She was too late in her movement.

Gnalaar's back was to Dorien as he pinned Kell to the ground with his heavier weight, knocking her sword away in her one moment of startlement. "Definitely out of shape, my dear Kellessan." He snorted. "Hard to believe you're the same woman who fought so many warlords and bandits. Guess you've just gotten soft after all. A pity. I was expecting more. I had been told so much about you."

Signing to Melaani that he was going to help Kell, Dorien hurried silently toward the two fighters, losing the safety of the shadows. His light steps went unnoticed. Didn't know you could still do it, Dorien. Creeping up on unwary souls -- even if Gnalaar has one, that is.

Coming to a stop behind Gnalaar, Dorien took only a moment to catalog the scene. Gnalaar had one meaty hand pinning Kell's sword arm to the ground above her head, the other hand closed around her throat, fingers covering the chain of her betrothal necklace. Kell glared up at Gnalaar, her eyes glittering with rage and battle lust. Her free hand rested at her side, fist clenched. Her eyes didn't acknowledge Dorien's presence, but Dorien knew by the barely noticeable change of tension in her frame that she had seen him.

Reaching out, he tapped Gnalaar on the shoulder. "Ahem." Gnalaar stiffened, obviously unprepared for an interruption. Dorien continued. "I think I have to disagree with you about that 'getting soft' remark. And I have the bruises to prove it."

The big man shifted his weight, loosening his grip on Kell's neck, turning his head slightly. Dorien watched as Kell's hand at her side moved before Gnalaar realized his mistake. A dip through a tear in her skirt, a soft snick, then out ... and in ... and up ... past leather and muscle. Dorien winced. The man's mouth opened and his hand tightened abruptly around Kell's neck in response to the fatal wound.

Eyes wide, Kell shoved upwards, attempting to dislodge the bleeding and dying man. Dorien grabbed Gnalaar's shoulders and yanked backwards. Together, they heaved him aside, dropping his deadweight on the hardwood floor, the clatter of his sword pinging off the walls. His loud gasps grew more labored, then disappeared altogether, his last breath sighing out in silence.

Kell stayed flat on the ground for a few moments longer, one hand rubbing her throat, wincing at the soreness. Dorien squatted next to her, one hand on her shoulder, fingers stroking the skin. "Are you okay, Lin?"

She nodded, saying hoarsely. "Help me up."

Grasping her hands, Dorien stood, raising her up slowly with him. As soon as both feet were beneath her, he gave into a sudden impulse and pulled her into an warm, abrupt embrace, burying one hand in her hair. "I never wanted to see you have to do anything like that again. And, yet, I have to be thankful that I did."

She nodded against his shoulder, then backed up a little, looking at him. "How did you know?"

"About what?"

"That I had knife."

Dorien rolled his eyes. "Well, of course, you had a knife, Lin. You probably have another one to use just in case the first didn't work. I know you."

She laughed a little, the smile not quite reaching her eyes. "He had to die."

"You were defending yourself."

Kell shook her head. "No, he ... he might have killed my father."

Dorien's eyes widened. Stefan? "I didn't ... I didn't see." He looked at the doorway that led to the banquet room.

"You were too far away, already halfway down the hallway. I don't know if he's still alive." She closed her eyes for a moment, then looked up at her betrothed, where Dorien could see Kellessan, warrior and swordswoman, receding and Linet, daughter and royal princess, re-emerging. Her voice dropped to a pleading whisper. "He has to be. I'm not ready to let him go."

Quickly, Dorien pulled off cloak and draped it over a nearby hall chair. The he stripped out of his outer tunic and scrubbed at Linet's hands, face, and arms with it, wiping off all remnants of blood, whether hers or Gnalaar's. "It wouldn't be unheard of for Linet to take defense lessons from Jydan or even myself or Blaen. You defended yourself as best you could. I helped. The two of us together managed to get extremely lucky. He fell on a knife." He glanced over at the body, seeing Gnalaar's own bloody hand wrapped loosely around it. "No one will ever know it wasn't his." Tossing the tunic aside, he gathered up his cloak and draped it over Linet's shoulders, pulling it tightly and warmly around her. "Okay?"

Linet nodded, taking a deep breath, holding her head high. "Okay."

"Good. Get the door. I haven't heard anything for a while, so maybe the fighting's over. But be careful." She nodded again, turning away. Dorien added, "Oh, if it is over, tell Jydan Blaen needs him."

Linet stopped, looking back, frowning. "He hasn't ... come back yet?"

Dorien shook his head. "No. And I think he's getting worse. I don't know how much longer he can go like this before it's too late."

Turning, Linet walked quickly over to the door, pausing a moment to slip her feet back into her discarded sandals. Dorien watched her a moment longer, seeing her consciously monitor her stance, seeing the patterns fall back into what a princess would know and do, realizing anew how hard it was for her to switch back and forth, to deny parts of herself, to change and to not have a choice about that change. He shook his head once, sighing out in a brief moment of unfamiliar bitterness.

I sometimes wonder if everything you are and everything you have to hide is worth the price, Lin.

He looked at the body on the floor and then back at Linet, not having to see her face to know her eyes were shadowed, filled with the knowledge that her father might be dead. And that she would consider herself at fault because some unknown warlord wanted Kellessan.

And sometimes, I don't think it is.

As he turned to go back to Blaen and Melaani, Linet yanked the knife from the doorjamb, dropping it to the ground unwanted. Then, grasping the knob, she took one last breath and pulled the door open, eyes fixed where she last saw her father.


Jydan's head snapped up as the side door swung inward. He leapt immediately to his feet from where he'd been half-kneeling next to Camella and Ryana as they tended Stefan. His eyes widened when Linet stepped out of the shadowed doorway. She'd obviously been fighting. Under a dark blue cloak that he recognized as belonging to Dorien, her dress was torn and had bloodstains on it. Her hair was a disheveled mess and a bruise formed slowly on one cheek. Her eyes -- her eyes were dark and closed to him, shuttered. And they fixed abruptly on the two women at Stefan's side. Striding quickly across the few steps separating them, she dropped to her knees next to Camella.

"Father...." She looked over at Camella, then Ryana. "Is he going to be all right?"

Ryana smiled slightly. "We hope so, Linet. The wound was deep, but we got the bleeding to stop. He's very weak and we can only hope that the wound doesn't get infected."

"Stop...talking...about me....I'm" Stefan's voice was barely hearable, only a whisper of voice passing his lips.

Linet leaned over her father, picking up one of his hands and holding it tightly between hers. "Father."

His eyes opened, but they didn't focus on her really, just blinked a few times. "Lin? You...okay?"

"Yes. I'm okay. So are Dorien, Blaen, and Melaani. We're all okay." She rested a hand on his forehead. "Rest now. You need to get better. I'm not ready to rule this country yet."

He closed his eyes, a smile lifting one corner of his mouth. "I are, my...daughter." He drifted off, falling back to unconsciousness.


Camella touched her shoulder. "He's just sleeping. Here, move back, the healer is here now."

Linet moved away reluctantly, standing slowly, another's hand grasping her elbow as she rose to give her balance. She looked over to see Jydan watching her. Memory of another who was hurt flashed into her mind. She touched his arm, gesturing toward the side hallway. "Jydan, Blaen needs you. He's inside with Dorien and Melaani."


Rushing into the hallway, Jydan paused only a moment as he passed the body of the invaders' leader. He spotted two swords on the ground next to him, plus a knife sticking in the body itself. Shaking his head once, he continued, spotting Dorien waiting for him further on. Definitely Kell's work.

Halting at Dorien's side, Jydan thumbed back at the body. "What did he want?"


Grimacing at the short answer, Jydan took a moment to observe Blaen, thinking best how to approach his tayaerra who currently was half-wrapped around a very scared, very worried young Melaani. "Obviously he didn't succeed."

"No. Is Stefan okay? Lin said he was hurt."

Sitting down on Blaen's other side, Jydan answered briefly. "He's okay for the moment. The healer's just got here. Linet would probably like your presence out there. And you might want to send someone to bring back Raven. It's safe now." He looked up at Dorien, even as he reached for Blaen. "And Dorien, thank you, thank you for being here with him when I couldn't, getting him to safety."

Dorien smiled and nodded. "You're welcome, Jydan." Quietly, he turned, walking quickly through the hallway to the opening, pulling the door closed behind him as he left.

Jydan shifted a little, wrapping one hand around Blaen's arm. He looked at Melaani, saying softly. "Melaani, I'm going to tug him over to me, okay? But don't leave. He wants you here or otherwise he wouldn't have grabbed onto you like he did. I think he tried to save himself from whatever happened by connecting with you. So stay in contact with him. He needs to come back now -- he just doesn't know how." He made a face. "I'm not sure I understand what I just said, but it sounded good."

Melaani relaxed a little at the small joke. She nodded and signed a quick 'okay' in the air.

Taking a breath, Jydan slowly began to pull Blaen toward him, putting one arm around behind him, crossing the other in front of him. He leaned down and whispered soothing words in his tayaerra's ear. "Blaen, it's okay. It's safe. I'm here. Melaani is here. No one can hurt you. I promise. Come on now, you have to come back." Tugging harder, Jydan gently maneuvered Blaen around, gathering him up in a warm embrace, pressing Blaen's head to his chest, rubbing the other hand on Blaen's back. He felt Melaani move closer and smiled encouragingly at her when she put her hand on Blaen's leg.

Jydan whispered to Melaani, hands still moving on Blaen's shivering form. "Has he said anything?" She shook her head, eyes full of worry. He asked another question. "When this started, what did he do?"

Melaani repeated what she told the others earlier. 'Stopped dancing. Started to fall. Grabbed me. Held tight. Didn't see. Didn't hear. Didn't feel. Just shook, shivered, like now.' Her hand shook in the air and swallowed, pausing to steady it. 'You can help him?'

He nodded. "Yes, I can help him." He lowered his face, whispering into the thick curls under his cheek. "I can help you, Blaen. You just have to listen to me, feel me, come back to me, to us. You've got Melaani really scared. You've got me pretty scared, too, tayaerra." He felt, more than saw, the curious look Melaani gave him at the unfamiliar term, but just ignored it and went on. "We'll have to tell Melaani about that now. I think she needs to know. Don't you?"

The younger man shook again, burrowing his head into Jydan's chest once more, then he spoke, his voice heavy with exhaustion. "What ... happened? I feel like my head is gonna roll off." He pulled away from Jydan's chest, one hand rising to touch the side of his head. He blinked and looked around, eyes landing on the body at the distant end of the hallway. "What...?" He looked back at Jydan in startlement. "What happened?"

Jydan smiled, breathing out in relief. "From what I understand, you missed a great sword battle between Kell and ... whomever that was. The palace got invaded, Blaen."

"Invaded! Was anyone hurt?"

"A lot of people are hurt." Jydan hesitated, then plowed on, knowing he owed Blaen the truth. "Stefan didn't leave when he was supposed to and he," he gestured to the body on the floor, "took him down. Stefan's okay for the moment, but it didn't look good when I was out there."

Blaen closed his eyes for a moment, lips pressed tightly together. Jydan ran a soothing hand over Blaen's back, not having any words for him. He continued softly after a moment, changing the topic. "I haven't seen you do this in quite some time. You must've had your barriers down a little or something and picked up on some nasty stuff."

Opening his eyes again, Blaen frowned. "I don't lower my barriers in such a public place. You know that."

Jydan shrugged. "Well, something happened regardless. Liralen said they might've had a mage in their group. In any case, you vanished on us and latched onto Melaani," he nodded behind Blaen, "for support since I couldn't get to you in time."

Blaen swivelled, backing out of Jydan's arms. "Melaani! Are you okay? I didn't hurt you or anything." He touched her arms. Melaani shook her head, signing rapidly in the air, too fast for Jydan to catch. Blaen chuckled a little and relaxed. "I know. And, yes, I'm glad I'm okay too. No, I don't know what happened." He frowned. "At least, not exactly. It was sorta like that dream I was telling you about before."

"Dream? What dream?" Jydan's hand tightened on Blaen's shoulder. "You haven't told me about any dream."

Blaen turned back, shrugging a little sheepishly. "Um, sorry? I haven't had it except the one time and it just slipped my mind. You know I have a hard time remembering them."

Jydan pursed his lips. "We'll talk about this later. For now, why don't we get up off the floor. I'm too old to be doing this."

Blaen snorted. "Too old. Since when are you too old? I saw you on the dance floor with Liralen."

Jydan shoved himself to his feet, mock scowling. Reaching down both hands, he grasped a hand of each younger person and yanked them to their feet. Blaen wavered a moment, leaning slightly into Jydan as he regained his balance. He smacked Jydan's shoulder with one hand.

"Warn me before you do that."

"I'll think about it." Jydan winked at Melaani who smiled, the laughter in her eyes chasing away the worry. He released Melaani's hand to touch her shoulder with a large, gentle hand. "Thank you, Melaani. For being here with him. You're a very special person in his life and in mine."

She blushed and lowered her eyes for a moment before signing a quick 'you're welcome' and another 'thank you'.

Jydan smiled, then turned back to Blaen. "I want you to go back to our quarters, Blaen. Take the most lighted path you know of. I'd keep you here, but I don't need you going down again as soon as I open that door."

Blaen opened his mouth to protest, then changed his mind, nodding. "Yeah, okay, you're probably right. You said it's safe now, right?"

Jydan nodded. "All the guards have been called in and are checking everything out. If you think you see or hear something strange, please let one of them know -- they should be posted at every other doorway by now. I would go with you, but..." he gestured toward the body on the floor.

Blaen made a face. "You need to take care of that, yeah, I know."

Turning again to Melaani, he asked quietly, "Would you stay with him until I can get there, Melaani? It may be a while. I don't think Linet is going to be needing you tonight. And I'll be sure to tell her where you are if she asks."

Melaani nodded after a moment, eyes a little stunned at such trust, but pleased at the same time.

Blaen reached down and grasped Melaani's hand, holding it warmly in his. "We'll be fine, Jydan. Go on." He and Melaani turned to go, hand-in-hand.

Remembering something at the last moment, Jydan called out softly after their departing figures. "Oh, and Blaen, tell Melaani about tayaerra, would you? I sorta mentioned it when I was calling you back. I think she's curious." Watching them disappear around the corner, Jydan let himself smile a little more widely.

What was it Liralen said? 'Am I ready for a sister as well?' I think maybe tonight I gained one.


Raven thanked the last healer one last time as she quietly closed the door. Exhausted and heartsick, she leaned her forehead against the wood, closing her eyes, trying to dispel the images of what she had seen when her personal guard had escorted her back to the banquet room. All that blood... She shivered. And so much of it Stefan's. She bit her lip to keep the soft cries that wanted to pour out inside. Her husband needed his rest and she didn't want to disturb him now that he had finally drifted off, helped by enormous amounts of pain-killing medicines.

"Raven...?" His voice was weak, weary, and hoarse, but Raven still heard it and turned around.

She walked across the room and settled carefully on the edge of the bed, stretching forth a hand to stroke at Stefan's cheek. "Sh, you should be asleep."

Stefan forced his eyes half-open and moved his head a little on the pillow, resting his face on Raven's hand. "I...know. And I...will." His eyes closed for a moment, then reopened. "You know...Linet will...have to...rule."

Raven nodded. "Yes, I know. It's okay, Stefan, I never wanted to rule. You asked me a long time ago, remember? You told me about the formal vows and what they meant, how your parents had taken them. I told you I would be your Queen as long as you were King. I never wanted to do it alone. I still don't."

A small smile crossed his face. "I" His eyes closed again and he drifted off into slumber.

Raven continued to watch him, her emotions breaking down now that everyone had left and Stefan was finally asleep. After the war had ended, she'd thought she'd seen the end of bloodshed. After having lost so many in the war, by death, by distance, or by time, she'd hoped never to lose anyone she loved like that again. Her sensitive nature had been toughened by the 15 years exile from Brightstar -- it'd had to, she hadn't had a choice. In recent years, however, in the peace of the times, she'd relaxed and began to enjoy life again, enjoy the simple things such as the flowers Stefan would bring her from the courtyard, watching Dorien and Linet dance around each other in their unique little courtship, or listening to the bardic students learn to play or sing. Simple things. Things she'd take for granted before the war, but never would again.

And now time's neverending circle had brought back the horror she'd thought she'd left behind -- that of battles, of swords, of enemies, of blood, of death.

Stefan shifted in his sleep, his forehead creasing a little in pain. Leaning forward just a bit, she stroked her fingers across the skin, soothing him. "Sh, sh, it's okay. Sleep." He settled back down, a quiet sigh parting his lips.

Staring at her husband, so hurt and so pale, the reality of what could have happened crashed down on her again. She squeezed her eyes shut and tightened her lips, again holding her cries inside, even as the tears rolled down her cheeks. Oh, Stefan, I almost lost you. And I wouldn't have been there to hold you, to wish you a safe journey, to tell you I love you one last time.

A gentle hand covered hers where it lay clenched on the coverlet. Her eyes flew open and she saw Stefan staring up at her, love and understanding in his gaze. Pulling her hand away, she wiped away the tears and whispered, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."

He shook his head. "Didn't." Reaching for the tear-stained hand, he curled his fingers around hers and gave a weak tug. "Please?"

She held back. "I don't want to make you hurt more."

"Won't. Please...?"

Acquiescing, she gently laid down next to him. Reaching across herself, she touched his face, reassuring herself, she supposed, that he was alive and would be well.

He echoed her thoughts. "I okay. Love you."

She lifted his hand up to her lips, kissing his fingers. "Love you, too, Stefan. Now sleep or the healers will be coming back to see why we're still talking and chastise us."

Too weak to laugh, Stefan only smiled once, then let himself be pulled back down to a drug-induced rest, safe in the knowledge that his love would be there to take care of him. Raven closed her eyes and shifted carefully to lay her head against Stefan's shoulder, also reassured that her love would still be there when she awoke the next morning.


Needing a moment's break from the chaos and the noise inside the banquet hall, Jydan stepped into the courtyard just outside. Behind him he could still hear the muted roar of Kedric's voice and those of his guards, plus various others who were helping to clean up the mess left by the small invasion. Tilting his head back to stare up at the dark night sky, he inhaled great droughts of the cool air, letting it fill and refresh him. His muscles ached with strain. His body cried out for rest. His mind yelled at him, wanting to know how this all could have happened during his watch, during his time as captain. He shook his head, shoving the anger at himself away. Not now. Later. Tomorrow, when I can think more clearly and figure out just how they got in.

And his heart -- his heart tugged him in several directions at once.

Stefan was, as the healer put it, stable for the moment. He'd lost a lot of blood and the wound, a severe slice across his stomach, wasn't something to be ignored. He'd said he'd seen the blow coming and hadn't been able to move back fast enough. Jydan shuddered, his mind more than helpful with images of what could've happened had Stefan not been able to move as far as he did. Hopefully with bedrest and lots of care from his family -- specifically, Raven and Linet, he would heal. In the meantime, however, it meant that Linet would have to rule in his place, not something Jydan thought Linet had really realized yet. Without Stefan, Jydan knew Raven would refuse to be Queen. The more old guard of the nobility would probably not even allow it.

Which is what makes the formal betrothal vows that she and Dorien exchanged so important. The vows were formally acknowledged by her parents at formal court. They can't be naysayed. Smart woman, Linet.

Blaen, he knew, was safely ensconced at their quarters with Melaani, every door and window locked up tight. He'd sent a message back with a guard. Plus, two guards had been posted at the entrance to the soldiers' barracks with orders to discreetly swing by their quarters every now and again until Jydan himself got back. But regardless of knowing Blaen was safe, he wanted to be there himself. Wanted to talk to him, to see him, to figure out what happened. Incidents such as what happened, rare as they were, still scared him, worried him, and made him realize just how vulnerable his tayaerra could be in the wrong situation.

And I want to know about that dream. He knows his dreams, no matter how confused, are important and that he needs to talk to me about them. That dream was probably about tonight. If I'd known about it....

He shook his head, shoving such uncharitable thoughts away, knowing that the still very young dironan tended to be unsure of his dreams sometimes. At least some of them. Others, like his foresight about joining up with Kellessan, he held very firm on, never wavering. Deciding to go gentle but firm -- like always -- on Blaen when he talked to him, Jydan set that particular issue aside.

And then there was Liralen.

His lips tilted up in a smile. It had been entirely unexpected for her to want to dance -- with him. And even more unexpected for him to discover his unspoken, easy attraction to her was returned in such equal measure. That he had seen in her eyes and felt in the way her hand touched his cheek.

Even if we never got to kiss, I know she wanted to. There'll be time later.

"Thinking good thoughts, Jydan?" Liralen's voice came softly.

He turned to see her standing just beyond him. "Some, yes. As disastrous as tonight was, things are still pretty okay. No one was killed, well, aside of the bad guys. It looks like the King will recover, given time. I don't think Princess Linet is too happy about having to rule in his place for awhile, but she'll be fine. And Blaen's okay, just ... stunned, I guess."

Liralen stepped over to him, sitting on the low stone wall in front of him. "What happened anyway?"

"Not sure exactly. You said there might have been a mage among them, right?"

She nodded. "Maybe. I've felt that kind of tingly effect before and it's always been from a mage." She sighed. "Too bad none of them survived. We could've asked them."

Jydan made a face. "It would have been nice to know for sure. But you told me they wouldn't surrender."

"No, not a one. We kept asking, but they kept fighting. Never said a word, just kept going until they were all dead. I've never seen such dedicated marauders." She shook her head. "Anyway, what does a mage have to do with Blaen?"

"I don't know exactly. Maybe the mage somehow sent something out that Blaen picked up on. Whether it was intentional or not, I don't know. Regardless, it was a distraction, not a long one, but a distraction nonetheless." Jydan waved a hand in the air. "It doesn't really matter now anyway. I'm just thinking out loud. Blaen will probably have the real answer by the time I get back to our quarters." He paused and grinned. "If he and Melaani don't fall asleep on the couch first. I think you were right about me gaining a 'sister', Liralen."

Liralen grinned back at him, chuckling under her breath. "And you obviously don't mind, just like you said."

"Nope. Not at all. She's good for Blaen and cares for him very much. He trusts her. And I trust her. That's all I need to know." His gentle smile turned into a grin. "And besides, everyone says they're so 'cute' together. How could I change that?"

Her laughter rung out, echoing across the courtyard, and her green eyes danced in the torchlight.

Jydan stepped over to her and touched her cheek with two fingers. "I seem to recall us being interrupted earlier."

She looked up at him, raising a hand to bring his fingers to her lips, pressing a kiss on them. "Funny. I was thinking the same thing."

Drawing her to her feet, he wrapped his arms around, swaying gently to the rhythm of the romantic melody he could still hear in his mind. "Dance with me, Liralen?"

"But there's no music." Even though the words were protesting, her body was not as she leaned into him, one hand on his chest.

He smiled, leaning down slowly, whispering just before his lips touched hers. "Who says we need music?"

Long minutes later, Liralen, arms wrapped around Jydan's neck, pulled back to look at him. She smiled and brought down one hand to touch his lips. "You're right -- who needs music. I've got all I need right here."

- The End -

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