Prophecy Story Index || The Sentinel Fan Fan Fiction

Searches
by Becky
June 1997

King Stefan straightened on his throne as the next noble visitor came into the throne room. He raised an eyebrow slightly, cataloguing the somewhat portly man instantly. Too much good food and wine and too little exercise. Thinks highly of himself. Very rich. Thinks he can do us a favor of some sort. He sighed softly, sneaking a quick look at his wife, Queen Raven, who only smiled serenely back at him. After 15 years of travel and 3 years as a barkeep, he'd learned to read people correctly almost immediately. And I don't think I'm going to like this gentleman in the least.

The court clerk announced, "Lord Grenadine from Gurodel."

Grenadine inclined his head to Stefan, barely shifting his body enough to make a full bow. Stefan had to wonder at that. Some kings would be offended and toss the man into the stocks -- Stefan just chose to ignore it. He pasted a polite smile on his face. "Lord Grenadine. How good of you to visit us in Brightstar."

Grenadine returned the smile, polite as well if a bit predatory. "Once I had heard that you and your queen had reclaimed the thrones of Rillanda, I felt it only fitting to visit your beautiful country. It has been some time since I was last here."

Raven leaned forward slightly, her voice curious. "You have visited Rillanda before then."

Grenadine nodded. "Oh, yes, years ago. Once before Norseth invaded and then another time during his horrible rule, I tried to travel across it and was attacked by bandits." Grenadine shuddered. "Terrible experience."

Raven replied sympathetically. "I'm so sorry. You had a pleasant trip this time, though, I hope."

He nodded. "Thank you, I did. I am simply amazed at how fast you are repairing the damage that Norseth did. Very commendable."

Stefan inclined his head. "We have a great deal of help. The people of Rillanda are anxious to have their nation back the way it used to be so that their children can grow up in peace."

Grenadine nodded, looking around the throne room, seeing the smaller throne set to the side and a little further down than Stefan and Raven's. Stefan followed his gaze and had to stop himself from smiling. Another suitor for Princess Linet. How many does that make now? Two or three a week?

Grenadine turned to look at Stefan. "I was hoping to perhaps meet your daughter, the princess, maybe talk with her."

Stefan exchanged a look with Raven, trying to decide how to best put what he had to say. Raven spoke up first. "Our daughter is ... otherwise occupied at the moment. We will pass on your greetings to her, be assured."

Stefan bit the inside of his cheek to keep from chuckling at the sheer disappointment that flashed across the noble's face before he nodded. "Yes, of course, she must be busy as well. I hear she is helping to rebuild the kingdom in some fashion."

Ooh, fishing for information now, are we? Stefan just replied, "Yes, she is keeping rather busy." I would say keeping up with two identities counts as being busy.

*************************

Dorien winced as Kell disarmed another young guard, throwing him to the ground with her momentum. Glad it's not me out there trying to hold out against Kell. She's just not beatable, even if she is holding back. He watched from the shadows of the training ring, waiting for Kell to finish so he could talk to her. Over the past 6 months since the restoration, the two of them had had very little time alone together. They'd tried, but duties and responsibilities almost always interrupted.

Both of their lives were just so busy. The Bardic Academy took up a lot of his time, dealing with the rebuilding schedule, plus finding the older bards and teachers, not to mention the crafting of instruments and other various materials. But between Camella and his assistant Ryana, one of the first of the older bards to come forward, and one of his former teachers, things were moving along at a good pace. Students were the one thing he hadn't had a problem with -- parents were already coming forward with their children, anxious that music and stories and education find their places again in their lives.

Additionally, Stefan and Raven had asked him to be their unofficial ambassador to other countries. That had been after Varian from Bornath showed up under a flag of truce to begin peace talks between their two nations. And so, he and Kell had traveled back to Bornath to talk with Opella, the Regent of Bornath for her son Aeric. When he and Opella had talked, she had told him the whole story and he had found himself enthralled by it. He had put himself into the half-trance he uses to record stories and then had written as fast as he could, dedicating the sound of her voice and the way she spoke to memory so he could transcribe the story more properly when he returned home.

When he'd arrived back in Brightstar, after updating Stefan and Raven, he'd secluded himself in his rooms for a week, barely remembering to eat and sleep. At the end of the week, he'd presented his piece -- Opella's Tale -- to full court. There had been silence after he finished the half-song, half-recitation, but it had been the respectful silence of awe and not one of criticism. There had been some opposition to appointing Dorien as Royal Bard, even if he was Tulan's handpicked successor -- some thought he was too young or too inexperienced. But after that performance, no doubt had been left in anyone's mind that Dorien should be the Royal Bard. He was truly the successor of Tulan, maybe even greater than him. Even though Dorien had requested to not be officially named as Royal Bard until the Bardic Academy was ready, most were already deferring to him and his opinion.

His thoughts were drawn back to Kell as she began to demonstrate a fighting technique. He could hear the frustration in her voice at the inexperience of the young recruits standing before her. She had taken it upon herself to train the best of the guards and soldiers to help train the rest of them. She didn't want Rillanda to ever be so open to attack again. But leading such a double life as Kellessan the swordswoman and Linet, Princess of Rillanda, was more draining than she had considered it to be. And both she and Dorien knew that it was only a matter of time before the resemblances between Linet and Kell began to get remarked upon.

Which brought Dorien to the reason he was down here watching Kell. He had talked with Stefan and Raven before their afternoon session with the visitors to the court. They need a new guard captain that could train the soldiers and free Kell to go back to a somewhat more normal life, if there was such a thing for her. And Dorien could see that she was getting antsy to get out of Brightstar, away from the court and just be herself -- just Kell -- for awhile. Dorien knew that Kell had many mercenary friends and the like who might be able to help in finding a captain. Maybe even one of them could serve. Doubtful, but possible.

So Dorien had proposed to Stefan and Raven that he and Kell travel out beyond Brightstar to the places Kell was familiar with and see what they could find. It was late summer and the traveling would be a lot easier now than later on in the year. The trip would also give Kell some time away from the palace and it would give them time to be alone and to talk, something they really needed to do before any more time went by them.

*************************

Kell dismissed the recruits with a wave. Trainable, yes; in the near future, no. She didn't want to admit defeat, but she realized that she was running out of energy to lead such a life. Linet half the time, trying to remember how to be noble and royal, and not do anything that would lead people to believe she had done anything more than stay hidden during the time of Seth's rule. Kell, the other half of the time, running around helping people rebuild their lives and training guards and soldiers to protect Rillanda from another invasion. The double life was wearing her thin. She knew that but wasn't quite sure what she could do about it. Rillanda needed both Kell and Linet. So she had no choice but to continue.

Once all the recruits were gone, she allowed herself to slouch slightly, resheathing her sword over her shoulder. Someone cleared their throat behind her and she whirled, hand going for her sword. "Who--?"

Dorien stepped out from the shadows of the barracks, an apologetic grin on his face. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. I wanted to talk to you."

She relaxed and walked over to lean against the barracks wall next to him. "Dorien. hello. What is it that we need to talk about?"

Dorien explained his plan to her to go on a search to find a guard captain. After he'd finished, Kell was silent a moment, then nodded. "A search. Yes, I agree. There are not many soldiers left from the old times and those that are left either don't want it or are too old to consider. I approached both Willim and Jamas about it already. Neither think they have what it takes to be a captain. Being personal guards is all they ever wanted. So, a search it will have to be."

Dorien exhaled shakily. "Good. I was half-afraid you wouldn't want to do this."

Kell looked at him, confused for a moment. "Why? You should know that I need to get out of Brightstar for awhile."

Dorien shrugged. "I wasn't sure you'd want to be stuck with me as your only companion on a long trip."

Kell glanced away. "I'm sorry, Dorien. We haven't had much time for us. It's been so busy and--"

He reached up and placed a finger over her lips, then slid his hand up to cup her cheek. "No, I know that. It's all right. I shouldn't have said that. We have been busy, both of us. I just wanted to be sure that you want me along."

She pressed her hand on his to hold it to her cheek in a rare moment of tenderness. "I do want you along. We have a lot to talk about."

He smiled, brushing his thumb across her lips. "Yes, we do."

*************************

Two days later, Kell and Dorien, on Tavi and Pela, respectively, rode out of Brightstar, heading for the smaller towns and villages on the borders of Rillanda where most of Kell's contacts were. Kell relaxed into the trip more the further they got away from Brightstar. It felt good to be just Kell again. As for Dorien, since his appointment as Royal Bard was not official yet and his name was a common one, no one really knew who he was and he could pass as a simple minstrel and planned to tell stories on the way to help fund their little sojourn if necessary.

They first headed east to that border and then followed it in down past the edges of the Emerald Sea to the southern border. Dorien got to meet firsthand several of Kell's mercenary friends and contacts who had helped them win against Seth. He took in everything, writing things down when he could. He wanted to document as much as he could about the fight against Seth and those involved.

As far as his and Kell's relationship, things hadn't gotten light enough to start any deep conversations. The eastern half of Rillanda was more populous and they seemed to just go from one town to another without so much as blinking. Once they hit the sea border, there were only more people. Kell spent most of her time talking to them. Dorien hoped that once they start south, things would change and they'd be able to talk.

Eventually they began to go south. One afternoon, as they rode along the sea coastline, Kell commented, "Tomorrow evening, we should be in Fariedel. There is someone there that might be able to help us, if he's in town."

Dorien looked over at her. "And if he isn't?"

Kell smiled slightly. "Well, then we leave a message for him at a tavern called The Black Rose. He's never out of town for long and he always stops by there first when he returns."

Dorien nodded. After a few moments, he opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again with a small sigh. Kell caught it, and asked, "What is it?"

He shrugged, smiling slightly. "It seems we've let life take over on us again already."

Kell was lost for a moment, then she sighed, smiling a little as well. "Yes, we ... I have. I'm sorry."

Dorien nudged Pela closer to Tavi and reached over to touch Kell's arm. "Don't apologize, just talk to me."

Kell said softly with hesitation, "I don't know how to talk or what to talk about. It's hard. I think I've forgotten how to."

Dorien squeezed her forearm in sympathy, then withdrew to give her room. "I know. I know it's hard. So let me ask you something instead to maybe help. Where are we headed with this ... friendship of ours? Where do you want it to go?"

Kell looked away from him, out into the distance. "I don't ... know. I've lost so many people I've cared for in my life that part of me doesn't want to care for someone else on the chance that I could lose them too." She looked back at him, continuing on, her voice softening as her eyes locked onto his. "But then another part of me says I should grab hold of you and never let you go."

Before Dorien could think of something to say in reply, Kell reached out to him, stopping both their horses as she did. She grabbed his arm and pulled him to her. The kiss started out hard and impassioned, but gentled after a moment. It only lasted a few seconds before Kell pulled back a few inches to look into Dorien's now wide eyes.

He blinked and smiled, reaching up to touch her cheek. "If that's how you're planning to answer all my questions, I'll have to think of more to ask."

Kell laughed softly, a little self-conscious, but happy inside, a little more relaxed, and hopeful that she and Dorien could build something lasting together between the two of them. They moved their horses away from each other and continued on towards Fariedel.

*************************

For the next several hours as they rode, Kell and Dorien talked quietly, exchanging stories of their lives before and during Seth's rule. At one point, Dorien asked about Tavi and where she'd found him.

Kell smiled, petting Tavi's neck. "I was traveling towards Yana and went through the village of Buren. I saw this young stallion prancing around in a stable yard. I knew when I saw him that he was Teva-bred. Before I could do much about getting him, raiders attacked. I rode Tavi bareback and helped fight the raiders off. The owner of the stallion gave me Tavi as a thanks and in trade for the roan mare I was riding. The next day I left."

Dorien blinked, opening his mouth and closing it again, then asked faintly, "How ... how long ago was this?"

She tilted her head, thinking. "Oh, um, maybe 3 years before you showed up in Yana. It was at the same time that I chose the name Kellessan, or it chose me." She looked over at him, curious. "Why?"

He cleared his throat and a light blush colored his cheeks as he laughed nervously. "Would you believe I showed up in Buren the next day? The villagers told me all about you and what you did. I had been looking for something to write about and--"

Sudden realization dawned on Kell and she stared at him. "You! You were the one who wrote that song about me. The name of the writer was Rei, wasn't it? You told me you used that name a lot."

He nodded, a smile tugging at his lips. "Yes to everything."

She went on, gesturing with one hand. "Do you know how people acted when I told them my name? Don't you think you exaggerated just a bit?"

He finally laughed, defending himself. "I only wrote what I was told. Nothing more."

She scoffed, shaking her head, but smiling as well. "I am not 7 feet tall, nor can I freeze someone by looking at them, minstrel."

Rolling his eyes at the nickname, Dorien shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. But to those who saw what happened that day, it sure seemed to be true. And you can't say that the reputation you got from that song and others that followed it hasn't helped you in fighting raiders and such."

She glared at him a moment, then sighed. Hmm. That much may be true. But still..."

Dorien just laughed again softly, drawing Kell into laughter as well.

*************************

Sometime later, they were nearing the edges of the border town of Fariedel. As they rounded the corner on the road that led into the main town area, Kell pulled Tavi to a sudden stop, holding up a hand to prevent Dorien from saying anything. Both listened for a moment and slowly shouts and the sounds of metal on metal drifted to them.

Kell muttered darkly. "Raiders." She kneed Tavi into a hard, fast run down the road, leaving Dorien to catch up on Pela.

Dorien yanked his quarterstaff from its spot tied to the saddle and then urged Pela to chase after Tavi. Border towns and raiders. What would one be without the other?

When Dorien pulled Pela to a halt in the town square, he took a quick look around, identifying Kell's figure across the way, taking on three raiders. Typical. Tavi was off to the side, standing between another raider and several villagers. Well, that guy's not gonna get past Tavi, hope he realizes it before he gets an intimate introduction to Tavi's hooves.

He saw another man, tall, with a long semi-curved sword, fighting several other raiders. Who is that? Actually, as long as he's on our side, I don't care. Dorien nudged Pela out of the way of the raiders. A good riding mount she might be, but a warhorse she was not. He saw two raiders ganging up on another man with long, curly brown hair. Shifting his grip on the quarterstaff, he strode over and konked one raider on the back of the head. Given respite, the other man took out the second raider quickly. He threw a quick, thankful grin at Dorien, then both jumped back into the fray.

The fighting continued for several long minutes. Dorien found himself next to Tavi near the last half-minute of the fight. He had just knocked out the last raider near him and was turning back to see the rest of the square when he saw the man he'd helped earlier fall to the ground, unbalanced by the raider above him. The raider grinned evilly and began to make a killing sweep with his sword at the unprotected and unready man on the ground.

Before Dorien could react, a long curved sword came flying through the air and impaled itself through the raider. The man beneath him rolled to the side to get out of the way before the raider fell to the ground, dead. Dorien looked over to see the tall man glance once in the other man's direction before simply decking the remaining raider in front of him.

And then it was all over. Breathing heavily, Dorien slumped against Tavi's side, half leaning into the stallion, half leaning on his quarterstaff. He found Kell across the square, cleaning her sword and eyeing the tall man speculatively. Her face revealed nothing about what she was thinking, as usual. Dorien watched as the tall man went over to the other man, reaching down to pull him to his feet. The taller man left his hand on the shorter man's shoulder for several seconds as they exchanged a few quiet words. Then he released him to retrieve and clean his sword.

Dorien's eyes swerved back to Kell as she walked toward the two men. The taller one looked up and walked forward to meet her. Dorien tensed up. Does she know him? An old enemy maybe? They stopped just a few feet away from each other and raised their swords to let them touch, neither speaking.

Finally, Kell said quietly, "Jydan."

The man, Jydan, replied just as quietly, "Kellessan."

After another moment, they began to exchange a few strokes of intricate sword play, almost like a dance. Dorien risked a glance at the man's companion. Though his face showed no expression, he seemed relaxed as he leaned back against a railing, arms crossed, just watching.

Suddenly Kell and Jydan stopped, sheathed their swords, and then broke into smiling laughter, clasping hands and forearms tightly. What the--? Well, that answers that question -- they obviously must know each other.

The villagers started to mill around them, going back to their normal lives, as much as they could after a raider attack, with several dead bodies lying around in the street. Tavi shifted next to Dorien, turning his head to look at him.

Dorien pulled away, standing on his own. "Oh, go on, Tavi. I gotta go find Pela." Tavi nodded his head and trotted over to join Kell and Jydan. Dorien watched for another second, then jogged back to the entrance of the town square, finding Pela's reins being held by a young boy.

The boy smiled shyly, handing the reins back to Dorien. "Here you go, sir."

Dorien nodded his thanks and automatically checked his packs to be sure his traveling lute was still okay. He'd left Tulan's lute back in his rooms at the palace, not wanting to risk damage to it anymore. The boy caught sight of the lute and whispered in awe, "Are you a storyteller, sir?"

Dorien smiled down at him. "Yes, I am." He heard the word 'storyteller' being repeated and echoed by the other people around them.

The boy went on, oblivious of the attention he'd gathered in Dorien's direction. "Will you tell us stories?"

Dorien chuckled, reaching out to ruffle the boy's hair. "Tell you what, tomorrow morning, after breakfast, I'll come back out to the square and tell some stories, okay? But right now I just want to rest a little, get something to eat and drink. Deal?"

The boy smiled. "Okay."

Dorien snapped his saddlebags back up. "Okay. You tell all your friends. I expect a big audience."

The boy ran off, already yelling about a storyteller in town. Dorien just shook his head, still smiling and laughing a little.

Kell's amused voice came from behind him. "Another fan?"

Dorien turned slightly to see Kell with Tavi and the two men standing several feet away. He shrugged. "I get the feeling they don't get too many minstrels down this way."

The taller man shook his head. "No, we don't."

Kell motioned Dorien closer. "This is Dorien. Dorien, this is Jydan and Blaen. Jydan is the one I wanted to see down here."

Dorien shook both men's hands, taking their measure with a carefully judging bard's eye. Jydan had piercing very light blue eyes that he was sure could be used to intimidate. For a moment, the eyes reminded him of Seth, but then Jydan smiled. That smile changed his whole face and the way that Dorien perceived him. Strong, protector-type, definitely a mercenary, and I bet those eyes attract half the women in any given town.

Blaen was shorter than Jydan by several inches. The long hair had been pushed back behind one ear to reveal two hoop earrings in his left ear. His dark eyes seemed to alter back and forth from a deep smoky blue to near black, depending on the shadows as he shifted on his feet. Not the fighter type, but willing to fight when he has to. From what happened earlier, he and Jydan are very close. And the earrings, something about them is familiar, I can't quite... Dorien mentally shook his head. Later, I'll figure it out later. Kell acted as if she trusted both men, which Dorien considered to be a rare thing, knowing that she trusted very few people.

Dorien finally asked, "Forgive my curiosity, but just how did the three of you all meet? I mean, neither are you are Rillandan. The accents are wrong."

Jydan and Blaen exchanged glances, then Blaen replied, "You're correct, we're not Rillandan. Not very many people can tell. You are more than just an ordinary minstrel, Dorien."

Dorien hesitated, unsure of what he should tell them, then he shrugged. "I was trained at the Academy before Seth destroyed it."

Blaen nodded. "That explains much. As for how we met, well, why don't we all go inside The Black Rose and we can tell you."

Jydan agreed. "Good idea. First, Kell and I have to, ah, clean the streets a little. You two go on ahead. Order some food and drink while you're at it."

*************************

Half an hour later, the four of them were settled in a private dining room in The Black Rose, eating and nursing their drinks. Kell, Jydan, and Blaen had been exchanging a few odd bits of information, catching up on old friends and other mercenaries that had helped during the war.

Kell looked over at Dorien during a brief lull in the conversation and saw that he was drinking in every word, most likely committing it all to memory. Finally, the food gone, Kell settled back in her chair, smiling in remembrance. "The story of how we all met. Well, that is quite a tale."

Jydan chuckled from across the table. "Hmm, yes. Why don't you begin, Kell? I'll let you know if you get any of the details wrong."

She rolled her eyes, then took a breath, beginning slowly, meeting Dorien's eyes before looking beyond him to the past:

"It was a year after I began working at Dragon's Rest in Yana. I had been traveling around the western and southern borders of Rillanda, meeting people, fighting raiders, making friends among various mercenaries. As I was heading through the mountain villages on the border between Ysindra and Rillanda near the Drynan Sea, I was caught in between towns and so stayed in the woods one night to sleep. Or so I thought..."

*************************************
Three years before . . . .
*************************************

Kell dropped her bundle of gathered firewood on the ground. Then taking off her sword scabbard, she folded her legs beneath her and sat on the ground to contemplate building a fire. It'd been a long day and she'd like nothing better than to just go to sleep. She stared at the wood, debating hot stew versus dry rations. If I don't eat that stew soon, I won't have a choice but to eat dry rations. It's not gonna last another day. Sighing she reached for a few sticks of wood.

She froze when the feeling of being watched crackled down her spine. She pulled back her hand, going instead for the dagger at her waist. She stood and began to listen to woods around her, barely breathing. She didn't hear anything beyond the normal early evening forest noises... Wait, wait, the night birds are quieter, much quieter than they should be. There is someone out there, trying to sneak up on me. Not a wise decision.

Kell waited a few more moments, pinpointing where the birds were the quietest, then silently moved into the trees. She decided to circle around slightly on the off-chance whoever was out there hadn't seen her yet. Years of training from the best swordmasters and trackers in the back country of Rillanda kept her step light. After a few minutes, she caught sight of the shadowed silhouette of a tallish male figure through the foliage. She edged closer slowly, then was upon him before he could move.

The man stiffened as he felt her extremely sharp knife at his throat. He was a little taller than she and several years older, well-built and well-armed as she felt the long curved sword strapped to his back press into her body as she held onto him. She hissed at him. "Who are you? And why are you sneaking around my camp?"

He replied slowly, his voice amazingly calm. "My name is Jydan. I was looking for someone."

Suspicious, she pulled the knife closer. "Who were you looking for?"

He continued. "I was looking for someone who may be able to help me in finding Raiders Canyon."

She turned him around jerkily and slammed him up against a tree, knife point at his throat. "And just why would you be looking for Raiders Canyon? Are you a raider?"

Jydan started to shake his head, but thought better of it. "No, I'm a tracker and a mercenary-for-hire, but never a raider. I've been looking for a group of slavers that came up from Gurodel. I heard that they were headed in this direction and would be meeting their buyers at Raiders Canyon. I want to stop them."

Kell eyed him, trying to decide if she could trust those icy blue eyes. He seemed sincere. And the pin, if it works like I think it does, seems to agree. She backed away a bit, but left her knife out. "All right. Say I believe you. You still haven't explained why you were sneaking around."

He inclined his head. "I apologize. It was an error in judgment on my part. I wasn't sure how to approach you. I talked to people in a few towns; they told me that you could help perhaps."

She narrowed her eyes. "And just who do you think I am? And why do you think I would want to help?"

Jydan, surprisingly, smiled. "You are Kellessan and you help those who are taken advantage of by raiders, bandits, and mercenaries on the wrong side of the law."

She grunted. "True and true. You are not Rillandan; I can tell that much. Why would I help you?"

He went on. "No, I am not Rillandan; I am Eirenan. And why? Because people are at risk and in danger from these slavers. Have you heard of Rikondja, called Rik Slavemaster sometimes?"

Her eyes widening slightly, she replied, "Yes, I have. Is he the one you're searching for?"

He nodded. "Yes, he has a group of Gurodellans he's planning to sell to a buyer from across the Sea of Drynan. And once he sells those he has, he will go after Rillandans next. Your country is not ... at its best right now. You know that and I know that."

Kell was silent for a long moment, her face a mask. Then she nodded shortly, once. "Very well. Come back to camp with me. We will ... discuss our options."

Jydan relaxed minutely, holding out a hand. "A truce then?"

Shifting the knife to her other hand, she took his hand after a moment's hesitation. "A truce."

*************************

Back in camp, Kell told Jydan about Raiders Canyon. It was between a clump of high mountains, accessible by horseback in only a few spots from the east that were fairly easily guarded. The western end was more open, thereby evading the boxed-in feel that other such canyons would normally have. Additionally, it was very difficult to get to the western end from the eastern edge. Too many rocks and steep slopes. They had no choice but to go in from the eastern side. Jydan had no horse at the moment as he'd had to sell the horse he'd been riding for information, so he would ride double with Kell until they were fairly close to the canyon.

As Jydan helped Kell resaddle Tavi, she asked him, "So, who is it that Rik has that you know?"

He shot her a look, then shrugged resignedly. "No reason not to tell you, I suppose. They have my tayaerra. I doubt you recognize the term."

She shook her head, glancing at him as she tightened a strap. "No, what does it mean? Is it an Eirenan word?"

He nodded, handing her a saddlebag. "Yes, it is Eirenan. It's not really directly translatable to Rillandan. The closest I could come would be ... soul brother."

Kell stopped and looked at him. "Soul brother? What exactly is that?"

Jydan paused a moment to think, then replied slowly. "In Eirena, we have defined many levels of brotherhood or sisterhood -- blood-related and marriage-related, companions and friends and partners. The highest level one can hope to achieve is tayaerra, a soul brother. It is a rare thing to find and to be cherished above all else."

He was quiet for a few seconds, a small smile on his face, from memories no doubt, then he continued. "Blaen is my tayaerra. He's not from Eirena, but from Gurodel. Actually his full name is Blaendironan. The last part is more of an honorific actually. He's a guide and a seer of the second level, of which there are only three. We met, more or less, when he was traveling through Eirena. We became friends and then, later, tayaerra."

She asked softly, "And how did the slavers get him?"

He looked away. "We were in Gurodel, relaxing between jobs. We were in a marketplace in the underbellies of one of the larger cities, looking for some herb or something that Blaen wanted, and got separated by the crowds. Next thing I knew someone hit me over the head, knocking me out. When I woke up the next day in a healer's tent, Blaen was gone. I was told that the Rik took him, along with several young men and women. Rik always moves very fast and is hard to track. And he knows who -- and what -- Blaen is and has tried to take him before, but I always stopped him. This time Rik got me out of the way first so he could get to Blaen. But Blaen is my tayaerra. I will do whatever I must to get him back."

Kell could hear the anger in his voice, directed both at himself and at the slavers, and the conviction that he would find Blaen and get him to safety. She tightened up the cinches one last time and checked the secureness of the saddlebags before swinging up onto Tavi. "Well, then, if we're gonna catch Rik and get your friend, your tayaerra, back, then we'd better leave now. You ready?"

At his nod, she gave him a hand up to settle behind her. Tavi shifted on his feet a few times to adjust to the extra weight, then followed Kell's whispered commands to head through the trees to Raiders Canyon.

*************************

Jydan laid in the dirt beside Kell in the area just beyond the entrance to the Canyon. Both had their swords out. Kell was counting softly under her breath, waiting for the right moment. Then she pulled out a small wooden whistle and blew into it shortly. A few notes of varying pitch emitted from it that could pass for birdsong. And then both she and Jydan heard Tavi's distinctive challenging whinny from a different entrance to the Canyon.

Kell smiled rakishly as the two men in front of their entrance rushed off, leaving their posts unguarded. "Good boy, Tavi."

Jydan shook his head in amazement. "Smart horse you have there. You sure you don't want to sell him?"

Kell replied, still grinning. "Positive. C'mon, let's go before they get back. Tavi can only distract them for so long."

They both were up and dashing silently through the night shadows toward the camp in a few blinks. At the edge of the encampment, near the rock cliff overhangs were the captives, maybe 20 in all, that the slavers had taken. Kell and Jydan hurriedly and ruthlessly took out the three guards around the chained prisoners. Each grabbed a set of keys and went to opposite ends of the manacled links, unlocking wrists and legs. Some of the weary prisoners were beginning to wake up, at first scared, then hopeful as they realized they were being freed.

After freeing a young woman, Kell grabbed the wrist of the next captive in line, a young man who was still asleep. He jerked awake, his head snapping up and pulling back to look at her. In the low light offered by the few torches scattered around, she recognized the long brown curly hair, the dark eyes, and the glint of two gold hoop earrings indicative of his guide and seer status as belonging to Blaen, Jydan's lost companion. She reassured him quickly in a whisper. "It's okay, Blaen. I'm here to help you. I'm a friend of Jydan's."

She pointed out the taller man at the other end of the line of captives where he was rapidly undoing manacles. The young man, only a year older than herself, relaxed and let her undo the chains and manacles. He looked into her eyes for several moments, then nodded, seemingly finding something he approved of, and whispered, voice trailing off in a question. "Thank you..."

She gave him a quick smile and answered the implied query. "Kell. And you're welcome."

As Kell was freeing the last captive, the slavers came storming back into camp, yelling for those who were sleeping in various tents about someone freeing the merchandise. Jydan swore softly first in sibilant Eirenan, then in a guttural language that had to be Gurodellan. Blaen came up to Jydan's side as he finished muttering curses. Turning slightly, Jydan touched Blaen's shoulder, silent for a moment, their eyes saying much, then Jydan said briskly, "Go back into the woods with the others. You'll be safe there."

Blaen tried to protest, but Jydan held up his other hand. "No. There is no discussion. I will not lose you to Rik again, Blaen. Go. Kell and I will join you when we can." Blaen stared stubbornly at him for a few seconds, then nodded resignedly before moving off quickly to join the freed captives as they disappeared into the trees.

Kell and Jydan pulled their swords and shared a cocky grin before beginning to fight the slavers. Only a few had been already awake and were prepared to fight. The better fighters had been asleep and Kell and Jydan took advantage of their unreadiness while they could. Tavi, unsaddled and unbridled, came storming through, dispatching a few slavers of his own with his wickedly sharp hooves.

At one point, Jydan had a moment to toss a few words at Kell. "Rik isn't here."

Kell grunted, kicking away a slaver guard. "And what does that mean? Do I want to know?"

Jydan whirled to strike a sword away from him. "It means that he went to meet the buyer to arrange the pickup. He should probably be returning soon -- he never stays away from his 'merchandise' very long."

She laughed once humorlessly. "Great. Thank you for that bit of enlightening news."

He smiled. "I do what I can."

Just when it looked like they had the fight won, pounding hooves arrived from the western edge of the canyon. This time it was Kell who swore, uttering words that made Jydan blink a few times even as he fought down another slaver. He looked up and swore himself -- Rikondja and too many hired men to fight and win. It was not that he was afraid of dying or of fighting Rik -- he was always ready to take on Rik; it was just that he knew that if he and Kell lost, the captives, including Blaen, hadn't a chance of getting away safely. Several were injured, a few sick already from the hard travel. Rik would show them no mercy.

As Rik and his men neared them, Jydan sidled over to Kell, standing at her back. "Ideas?"

She was quiet a moment, then straightened. "Just one."

Before he could say anything, she whistled at Tavi, shouting out a few nonsense words that Tavi seemed to understand. He reared at a few more slavers, then took off into the woods, to stay near the freed captives, Jydan assumed. The slavers surrounded them on their horses, stirring up dirt clouds. Kell and Jydan stood firm, swords up and ready, muscles tensed, just waiting and watching for someone to make a move. The obvious leader, a large and heavily muscled man, dismounted and stepped toward them, a small smirk on his face as he began to speak.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't my old friend Jydan. I was beginning to think you wouldn't catch up with me. And then where would the fun be in this?"

Jydan's jaw clenched and flexed as he growled out. "You can't run fast enough or far enough to get away from me, Rik. I will always find you. You do not own Blaen, you never will."

Rik snapped back in a low voice. "He has always belonged to me. I made him. And I will have him, maybe not today, but someday, maybe after I rid myself of you and your lady friend here."

Jydan made as if to rush Rik, perhaps planning just to run him through and be done with it. Kell grabbed his arm, yanking him back next to her. "No, he wants you to attack him. Let me handle this." She could feel the muscles in Jydan's arm quivering as he fought against his instincts to attack. He forcibly relaxed and stepped back, his sword still raised, jaw still working, but he did as Kell asked.

Kell turned to face Rik more solidly, straightening from her defensive crouch. She met Rik's flat eyes. "Rikondja of Gurodel, I challenge you to combat."

He sneered at her. "And just who would you be, little miss?"

She answered in a cold voice. "Kellessan, daughter of no one. And you are Rikondja Slavemaster."

He bowed mockingly. "So I am. Kellessan, daughter of no one. I have heard of you. Yes, I have. You want to fight me. Why should I? You are outnumbered. We could take you easily."

Kell let a hint of a smile creep onto her face. "Not without considerable damage to your little band of slavers. I am not that easily taken. Are you afraid to fight a woman, Rikondja?"

Rik eyed her up and down, then growled. "A fight it shall be. What are the stakes?"

Kell replied, "If I win, you let us go and I'll let you live. And if you win--"

He interrupted. "If I win, you die and I take back my merchandise you so rudely liberated."

She nodded shortly. "So be it."

Rik motioned his men to stand back, making a circle around the two of them. Kell exchanged a glance with Jydan who nodded at her, hoping she was as good as he'd heard she was. And as for letting Rik have Blaen, that will be over my death.

And the fight began.

Kell and Rik circled each other in the ring of men, sparring lightly, taking one another's measure. Kell was tired, but was getting her second, no, third wind. Rik was stronger, but Kell was faster and lighter on her feet. Rik suddenly rushed her and the real fighting started. Jydan could only watch from the sidelines as the two wove an intricate battle of swordplay, metal clanging and breath huffing out in great gasps and grunts. The slavers began to chant and stomp their feet, bringing up more dust in the night air.

Rik lunged out and hit Kell with a fist across one cheek, stunning her momentarily as she stumbled back a few feet, but still defending herself from the onslaught of his sword. She was across the way from Jydan who caught the way her eyes shifted suddenly in the torchlight. Rik just made a fatal mistake, I think.

Kell's fighting turned colder and more efficient as she methodically beat away at Rik, wearing him down, evading his thrusts with little effort. Suddenly in a flurry of motion, Kell had Rik on the ground, her sword point at his throat, a pinprick of blood already visible. Her blue were snapping with anger and disgust. "Yield and I'll let you live."

Silence hung heavy in the air and Jydan tensed up, waiting for the answer.

Rik's face was blank, then it changed and before she could respond to what she saw in his eyes, Rik yelled, "Attack! Kill them!"

Jydan whirled to fend off the blows aimed at him, backing toward Kell.

Kell looked around in horror at the men closing in on she and Jydan. She growled and muttered a few choice words, then threw up a hand, closing her eyes for a brief moment, before whispering a short command. "Sleep."

Jydan could only blink in amazement as the slavers dropped into a heavy slumber before his eyes, slumping onto the ground on top of each other. In a few moments, all he could hear was the dull rumble of snoring and the shifting of horses' hooves. He lowered his sword, then nonchalantly bent to clean it off on the nearest slaver's cloak.

Kell looked down at Rikondja, his mouth open in sleep, a trickle of drool winding down one cheek. She lifted her sword slightly, thinking perhaps to kill him and put them all out of their misery, but then shook her head. She couldn't kill someone in cold blood. There were laws and courts to take care of these kinds of things, even in Rillanda, a country torn apart by disruption and invasion. Unfortunately, she couldn't take the time to deliver him to anyone who could judge him and she refused to be judge and jury.

However, she could embarrass him. Perhaps it would serve as a warning.

Quickly and nimbly, she sliced through every layer of his clothes with the tip of her sword. In a matter of moments, Rik was not hiding a thing. Jydan came to stand behind her, staring at Rik with little emotion on his face for several moments, "I'd be happy just to kill him, but..."

She finished his statement, glancing at him. "But you won't because it isn't right. I know Eirenans. Law and the correct process of justice is important to you."

He sighed, nodding and sheathing his sword. "Yeah. And Blaen, well, he stopped me before from killing Rik when I had the chance to. He told me I couldn't, that it wasn't right. I didn't want to agree with him, but I did. I don't want to misplace his belief in me now, even if he would never have to know -- I would know."

Kell nodded, then sagged suddenly, her weariness catching up with her. Jydan grabbed her arms to steady her. "Hey, you all right?"

She found her feet again and smiled up at him. "Yeah, I'm okay, just tired. It's been a long day, too long. Let's get out of here before they wake up. And let's take as many horses as we can. We'll need them and they won't."

As they turned to pick their way through the sleeping mass of slavers, he asked, "About what did you do back there..."

Kell hesitated, stiffening in an instinctual reaction, then sighed. "I ... it's a long story. I don't think you would understand."

He looked at her closely, then shook his head. "You're probably right. Never mind, I don't think I want to know what you did. It worked, that's all I care about."

*************************

Kell and Jydan were met by Tavi in the woods. Kell patted Tavi on the nose to assure his jealous and possessive soul that she wasn't replacing him with the six horses she was leading. Jydan was behind her, also leading six horses. They figured twelve horses should be enough to get the freed captives and Jydan and Blaen back into Gurodel if some ride double. Tavi led them to a clearing where the others were waiting for them, where she'd left Tavi's saddle and bridle and her saddlebags.

After tying off his six horses, Jydan caught sight of Blaen sitting beside a teenage boy, putting a bandage around one of the boy's wrists where the manacles had dug too deeply. Blaen looked up as the noise of several horses impinged itself on his hearing. Jydan smiled at the relief that crossed Blaen's face before he looked back at the boy, patting his arm in reassurance before rising to go to Jydan.

Blaen stopped just a few inches away. "Are you all right?"

Jydan nodded, reaching up to grip both of Blaen's shoulders. "Yeah, I'm fine. Are you? They didn't hurt you, or anything, did they?"

Blaen shook his head. "No, Rik said he had a special buyer for me who wanted me undamaged." He shuddered once, wrapping his arms around himself, "If you hadn't come when you did..."

Jydan drew him into a hard, warm embrace, feeling Blaen's hands grip the front of his tunic and his face press into his chest. He rubbed Blaen's back, lowering head to whisper in Blaen's ear. "But I did. I always do. And you're okay. We're both okay."

They stayed that way for at least a minute as Jydan waited for Blaen's shaking to subside. Strong as Blaen was, at least during any given crisis, he could easily fall apart once everything was over and he was safe and the stress hit him, something Jydan had learned early on in their friendship. He had promised himself never to take for granted that Blaen would handle extreme stress well again. One reaction like that first time had been enough for him.

Blaen finally let out a huge sigh, then backed up slightly, looking up at Jydan. "Thanks."

Jydan released him slowly, smiling gently at him, replying simply. "You are my tayaerra."

*************************

As she resaddled Tavi, Kell watched out of the corner of her eye as Jydan and Blaen talked to each other at the side of the clearing. Jydan she could relate to and understand, to a point. He was a fellow mercenary, going against the evil in the world. But Blaen, there is something about him, something I can't pinpoint, something that struck me when he was looking at me. It was almost like he was looking into my soul, like he recognized me...

She shook off those thoughts as Jydan and Blaen turned as one and walked toward her. She threw the saddlebags on, then turned slightly to face them.

Jydan made the introductions. "Blaen, this is Kellessan. Kell, this is Blaen, my tayaerra."

Blaen smiled at her. "Thank you again for getting me, and the others, away from the slavers."

She inclined her head, unexpectedly charmed by his dark eyes. "You're welcome again."

Jydan commented, "I have heard that you are gathering forces to eventually take Rillanda back from Norseth. Is this correct?"

Kell answered slowly. "Yes, it is."

He continued. "Blaen and I have talked and we would like to help you as you helped us. That is, if you will allow two non-Rillandans to be included in your 'network'..."

She just stared at the two of them, not blinking, judging them. Blaen's eyes caught hers and again it seemed as if he was looking beyond the surface, to what was beneath. She tore her eyes away and looked back at Tavi's saddle, tightening the cinches. "Very well. Where can I find you when I need to contact you?"

Jydan spoke again. "There is a tavern called The Black Rose in the Rillandan-Jourdainian border town of Fariedel, near the mouth of the River Yeora where it drains into the Emerald Sea. Any message you leave there for us will find us, either by us going there or by messenger."

She nodded and looked back at them, holding out a hand. "Agreed."

Jydan took her hand, gripping her forearm, as she smiled. "Agreed."

*************************

A few minutes later, Jydan left Kell and Blaen to ready the horses for the others to go back to Gurodel. Blaen remained, reaching out a hand to touch Tavi's black mane gently. Tavi turned his great head to look at the young man, then lipped Blaen's cheek briefly.

Kell just stared, then shook her head. "That's a first. Tavi usually doesn't like strangers touching him."

Blaen smiled enigmatically, shrugging a little. "I've always had a way with animals, especially the wild ones." He was silent a moment, then he looked up at Kell. "May I tell you something?"

She nodded. "Of course, what is it?"

He turned to face her completely. "I know Jydan told you I'm a guide and a seer. Or at least that's what the Gurodellan term for what I am translates into. It's close enough to be correct. When you touched me earlier, to take off the chains, I 'saw' something for you."

Kell stiffened, looking away from those dark eyes. "More prophecy?"

Blaen was confused for a moment. "Prophecy? No, not exactly. Though I could feel at a touch that much of your life has been circumscribed by prophecy. What I have for you is a little different. It is a message -- It will not be much longer. Continue to prepare."

She looked down at him. "Is that all?"

He nodded. "Yes. Do you understand it?"

Her eyes turned inward for a few moments, then refocused. "Yes, I do understand. Thank you, Blaen."

He smiled widely and bounced off to join Jydan.

*************************************
Present . . . .
*************************************

Dorien sat in a chair on the front porch area of The Black Rose. He wrote quickly, but carefully, in the notebook in his lap, not looking up even at the clanging of the swords in front of him. Yesterday, Kell, Jydan, and Blaen had told him the story of how the three of them had met. He had written down brief notes during the story, but had been too engrossed in the tale to take down details. And now in the light of the new day, he wanted to get down everything he remembered before they had to get on the road again.

Someone sat down next to him and he looked over to see Blaen who smiled at him before looking back out at the two figures sword fighting in front of the tavern. Dorien followed his eyes and watched Kell and Jydan dance around each other for a few seconds, both grinning, but both very intent. Morning exercise. No wonder she keeps herself so busy in Brightstar -- she doesn't get to practice with anyone that is anywhere near her level of skill. All that extra energy and nothing to do with it must drive her nuts.

Blaen shifted in his chair and looked at Dorien. "So, how did you get hooked up with Kell?"

Dorien straightened up, flexing his hand. "I ran into her while traveling up near the seacoast. She was protecting the current king and queen from discovery by Seth."

Blaen nodded. "That much I know. And you helped get them back on the throne, yes?"

Dorien shrugged a little. "I ... talked to them, and Kell, about Rillanda and Seth and the damage he was doing to both the land and the people. They decided to take my finding them as a sign that it was time to confront Seth. Kell's 'army' was as ready as it was going to be. And Kell herself took care of Seth."

Blaen looked at Jydan for a moment. "Jydan and I were in Brightstar during the retaking. Jydan fought a lot of Seth's soldiers. And I helped with the escape routes for the civilians who might have been caught in the paths of the troops, friendly or not. I'm not a fighter, never have been. Jydan says I was born in the wrong country. Everyone knows that Gurodel is where so many of the worse mercenaries come from."

Dorien agreed. "Yes, that's true. How did you and Jydan meet anyway?"

Blaen settled back in his chair, a small smile on his face. "By chance. Several years before we met Kell, I was traveling down from Malinde south through Eirena, stopping in the larger cities to see if anyone had a need for my services. I has been a second-level guide and seer for a year at that point, the youngest to ever be named so, and still very anxious to test myself. Jydan and I literally bumped into each other in a marketplace. He's not the same person you see now. He knocked me over and then got mad at me for being in his way."

He stopped and chuckled slightly, shaking his head, looking out at Jydan as he ducked underneath Kell's sword and feinted at her. "I kept trying to apologize, but he wasn't listening. It was obvious he wasn't going to listen to an outlander. I pulled myself to my feet and then promptly managed to fall into him again. That time he grabbed me to keep my upright, still snarling."

Blaen paused, a faraway look in his eyes. "Something ... sparked between us, I don't know what. We just stared at each other for a few seconds, then he blinked, set me aside, and stomped off. As well as being a guide and a seer, I also can 'see' things about people, like afterimages or maybe I should say 'foreimages', I'm not sure how to describe them. I think I knew in that moment, somewhere deep inside, that Jydan and I were meant to friends, very good friends. He, of course, still disagrees with me on that point, but ... well, that's just Jydan."

He got a silly grin on his face. "Anyway, a few hours later, Jydan walked into the local mercenary guild outpost, looking for a guide. He wanted someone who knew Gurodel and could travel quickly and at a moment's notice. He was given a few names and he chose one, filling out all the contract papers before meeting his new guide. The look on his face when I met him at the stables the next morning was just too much. But he couldn't back out of the contract, which, incidentally, was for 6 months.

"It took a few weeks before Jydan really began to thaw toward me. We slowly became friends, getting to know each other, joking around, that kind of stuff. Five months after we met, he told me about tayaerra. I could tell it was hard, at first, for him to talk about it. He'd always been a loner, never needing anyone. But there he was, admitting to me, as well as himself, that we were soul brothers, bound together by something stronger than blood or simple friendship. When the six-month contract was up, I left the guild and stayed with him. And that's the way it's been ever since."

Blaen looked over at Dorien who had his head bent again, scribbling in his notebook, writing down brief words in bardic shorthand. Blaen just laughed softly and shook his head, looking back out at Kell and Jydan as they decided to stop practicing, both tired, sweating, but laughing together. Jydan slung one arm around Kell's waist and Blaen shot a glance over at Dorien. Dorien's eyes were hooded, but they were fixed on Kell who shoved at Jydan playfully, but didn't remove his arm. Blaen made a mental note to talk to Jydan. That man is so blind when it comes to women sometimes. How can it be so glaringly obvious to me that Dorien is halfway in love with Kell and she with him when Jydan is totally unaware of it and Kell and Dorien have only partly acknowledged its presence?

Jydan and Kell disappeared around the back of the tavern, heading for the outdoor washrooms to cool off. Dorien snapped shut his notebook and stood up. "I believe I have an audience of children waiting for me to tell stories at the square. I'll be back later." Without waiting for a reply, he trotted off toward the town square.

Blaen watched him go, then shook his head, pursing his lips in frustration. Not good.

*************************

An hour later, Kell found Dorien sitting cross-legged on the low cement wall of the town square fountain, surrounded by children, teenagers, and even adults, as he wove tales of magic with his hands and voice. She leaned against a building, watching Dorien's animated profile, his gesturing hands, and the eyes of the children as they get bigger and bigger, and listening to his voice as it dipped and rose in accordance with his tale and the 'oohs' and 'ahs' of his listeners in response.

She had to smile, both in fondness and in pride, that Dorien could so quickly make a place of fighting and bloodshed a place of stories and dreams again for this town's children. Just yesterday, the square and the fountain had been covered with bodies, dead or unconscious, and blood and weapons. But Dorien had made them all forget that, giving them a happier memory to take the place of the recent terrible one.

A hand came down on her shoulder. She didn't have to look to know it was Jydan. His touch was one she would always recognize. They knew each other too well for her not to know it. His voice was low, appreciative, kindly. "He is an excellent storyteller and a good fighter as well."

She nodded. "Yes, to both."

Jydan asked, "I have to know, Kell, why do you travel with him? You used to travel alone."

She interrupted. "So did you."

He conceded that. "Granted. But he is a bard -- don't try to tell me he's a minstrel, I'm not that gullible -- a very well trained bard who should probably be teaching at that Academy of yours, not wandering all over Rillanda with a mercenary."

She kept her smile to herself. If you only knew the truth, Jydan, my friend, but I can't tell you, not yet anyway. She shrugged slightly, settling for something that was mostly true. "He's good company and a good traveler too. We're friends, or at least we try to be most of the time." She turned her head to look up him, a sly grin on her face. "I seem to remember you telling me that I've been alone too long and should get someone to travel with. Changing your mind on me?"

Jydan laughed and shook his head. "No, just curious. If you're happy, then I'm happy." And he leaned down a bit and planted a hard, but brief and friendly, kiss on her lips.

*************************

Dorien, looking around at his audience as he described the bad guy in his story, caught sight of Kell and Jydan standing off to one side, just out of his hearing range. His eyes landed on them just as Jydan kissed Kell. His voice faltered to a stop for a brief moment before he tore his eyes away and continued. But the story, as much as he had always loved to tell it, seemed to be more mechanical that he could ever remember it being.

*************************

Two days passed. Early afternoon on the third day, Kell found Dorien in the stables checking up on Pela, murmuring softly to her. Kell leaned over the stable divider. "Haven't talked to you much lately, minstrel."

Dorien looked up to meet her eyes for a second. "I've been in the square, telling stories to the kids quite often. And then I've been talking to people in town, that kind of stuff."

Kell rested her chin on her hands. "Hmm." She was quiet a second or two, then asked, "Tell me, minstrel, what do you think of Jydan?"

His hands froze for a moment, then he forced himself to keep brushing Pela's mane. "Jydan? He seems like a good man to me, a little rough, but then he's a mercenary. Why do you ask?"

She answered matter-of-factly. "I think he would make a good captain of the guard. That's why I wanted to find him."

Her answer made Dorien drop the brush with a thud, startling Pela. He just stared at Kell. "What? Are you serious? He's a mercenary. He's not even from Rillanda. How could you possibly think...?"

Kell straightened and came around the stable divider to face Dorien directly with nothing in between them. "I'm a mercenary, Dorien. Does what I think you're saying apply to me as well? And when has where someone is from matter to you. Tayna was from Shionan and Gwyna was from Bornath."

Dorien turned away. "That's different."

She grabbed his arm, pulling him back to face her. "Why? Why is it different? What is the problem you have with Jydan? You don't talk to him unless it's necessary and barely acknowledge his presence. Are you jealous or something?"

He didn't even try to get away, her grip was too tight, too firm. He fought the urge to strike out at her. She could seriously hurt him without even trying though he was sure she wouldn't. Or at least I think she wouldn't. He snapped out, evading her question altogether. "Just how close are you and Jydan? I thought we were trying to build something between the two of us. Was I wrong?"

Thrown off-balance, she released his arm and rested her hand against his chest, her voice lowering slightly. "Jydan and I are friends, nothing more. And no, you weren't wrong. You know it's just been too busy, for the both of us, you know that."

He stepped away from her touch, his voice flattening out. "Maybe, maybe not. Maybe you really don't want this. Are you sure that Jydan isn't more your style. Swordplay and joking around and even a kiss."

Kell blinked. "What? A kiss...? Oh, that. Dorien, that ... that was nothing, it was just--"

Dorien shoved past her, anger, fear, and hurt blinding his better judgment and more calm self. "I don't want to talk about this anymore. Go to Jydan if you want; I don't care."

She reached out to him, trying to halt his movement, get him to listen to her. "Dorien, wait..."

With a sudden burst of energy fed by emotion, Dorien pulled away from her hands and pushed her back to fall into the neatly stacked hay bales, then he stormed outside. When Kell managed to get to her feet again and run outside the stables, there was no sign of Dorien anywhere.

*************************

Kell stomped into The Black Rose and banged her fist on the bar counter, demanding the strongest drink they had. Blaen and Jydan watched curiously from a table on the far wall where they were eating lunch. All talk in the tavern had ceased when Kellessan the angry and cold swordswoman had blown in like a thunderstorm. The patrons started to eat and talk again slowly, but in a more muted way, wary of disturbing the fuming woman at the bar.

Jydan and Blaen traded a meaningful look -- Kell had never been one to drink strong alcohol, preferring to stick to non-alcohol stuff to keep herself alert. For her to ask for the strong stuff, which, as far as either of them knew she had never had, was a very bad sign. Blaen had just finished telling Jydan about what he felt was between Dorien and Kell, and Jydan had the bad feeling that he could be partly to blame for whatever was wrong now.

Jydan's eyes widened in shock as Kell chugged down a full glass of something known as 'fire ale' -- extremely potent, mostly drank in shot glasses -- then slammed the glass back down on the counter. He himself never touched the stuff. As she asked for a refill, Jydan stood quickly to go over to her.

Before he could reach her, the door to the tavern flew open and a teenage boy nearly fell through the doorway. Jydan altered his course, striding over to help the boy keep on his feet. "Whoa there, what is it?"

The boy panted a moment, then gasped out, "Urgent message." He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and shoved it into Jydan's hand. Jydan gave him a copper coin as payment, then shooed the boy out of the tavern. Looking down into his hand, he flattened out the wrinkled message and stiffened as the words made themselves clear.

From across the crowded room, Blaen could almost sense the increased tension floating off of Jydan. And, well, the jaw muscles going like that, it's pretty obvious something is wrong. He stood and hurried over to Jydan, touching his arm. "What's wrong?"

Kell had noticed as well and had forgotten about the second untouched glass of fire ale on the counter top. The barkeep slipped it away, hoping she wouldn't come back for it. The last thing he needed was a drunk and angry swordswoman tearing apart his tavern, even if she was Jydan's friend and the leader of the troops that took back Rillanda from Seth.

Kell joined Jydan and Blaen as Jydan was handing Blaen the note, which he proceeded to read in a subdued voice:

"I propose another challenge to you, Kellessan, daughter of no one. Your life for the life of the minstrel. Meet me outside the town's borders in a hour. Come alone."

It was signed "Rikondja."

*************************

Dorien groaned as he regained consciousness, reaching up a hand to touch his aching head. Or at least he tried to. Something jerked against his arm and bit the skin on his wrist. What...? As he finally blinked his eyes open, he focused on the manacles and chains attached to his wrists and ankles. In a rush everything came back to him.

He had stormed out of the stable and through a few back alleys to get beyond the town's borders, wanting some time alone. He had been walking along the dirt trail, kicking rocks, muttering at himself and Kell, angry that he got mad and angry at Kell for making him mad. He didn't know how long he'd been walking when he had been suddenly surrounded by men whom he could only describe as raiders and bandits, only worse.

One in particular had ridden up and then nodded after looking at him, saying something like he was the right one and to take him, that Rik wanted him. The name had stunned Dorien long enough for several men to grab him before he had been able to react. He had fought against them and gained bruises as a result. Finally, one of the men had smacked him on the back of his head with the pommel of sword. And then all was darkness.

Until now. Now he was awake. Groggy, in pain, feeling like an idiot, but awake. Dorien, you are such a fool sometimes, wandering around the outside of a border town with no weapons, not paying the least bit of attention to where you're going. And, of course, what do you do but get yourself kidnaped by Rik, an old enemy of Kell's. Lovely, just lovely.

Dorien looked warily around himself. They were on a cliff overlooking the raging River Yeora. Fortunately, he wasn't anywhere near the edges. But he had a distinctively uneasy feeling about their location. He pulled on the chains experimentally, but they were firm. As he moved, the bark of a tree rubbed against his back. Chained to a tree -- well, I won't be going anywhere obviously. Unless... He shifted his right foot slightly. Yes, my small dagger is still there. Maybe if I can get to it, I can pick the locks on these things. Oops. But not now.

One of the raiders -- slavers, his mind supplied -- saw that he was awake and yelled for Rik to come out. Shortly a heavily muscled man stepped out of a tent and strode toward him. That would be Rikondja, I presume? This is definitely looking worse by the moment.

Dorien folded his hands in his lap and tried to look calm and unworried. The pounding in his head and the sting of various cuts and bruises and one very swollen eye didn't help him in that area though. Rik stood in front of him and grinned malevolently down at him. "Welcome back, little minstrel. I wouldn't want you to sleep through the fun."

Dorien asked warily, "And just what would that be? Why am I here?"

Rik continued. "Why, you're the bait of course, for your swordswoman."

Dorien's voice was dry. "My swordswoman. If you're referring to Kellessan, she is hardly mine. I only write stories about her, nothing more."

Rik grabbed him by the collar and hauled him up to standing position, the chains rattling and clanking below him. He hissed in Dorien's face. "You'd better hope that you mean more to her than someone to catalog her life, little minstrel, or your life as a minstrel will be over."

He shoved him back against the tree and let him fall to the ground in a heap. Dorien winced as his body contacted the ground with a hard thud, making his bruises send up a chorus of complaints. He shifted and adjusted until he was semi-comfortable again, then leaned his head back against the tree, sighing. That was just too smart, Dorien. Way too smart. Antagonize the bad guy, the slaver. Do you have a death wish or something?

He closed his eyes, the recent yelling argument he had with Kell floating around in his memory. He could still see the hurt, the confusion, and the anger in her eyes. He didn't know where the anger had come from. Well, no, that isn't true. I do know. I am jealous. Jealous of a man I hardly know who seems to get along with Kell so much better than I do.

Dorien sighed again, opening his eyes to look up at the cloudy sky as he settled down to wait.

*************************

Half an hour later, his chains newly tightened, Dorien looked to his side toward the road as the clip-clopping of horses' hooves grabbed his attention. A tall black stallion came into view over the top of the ridge, ridden of course by Kell. She pulled Tavi to a stop and let the dust settle around her. Dorien caught her eyes for a few brief moments. He couldn't read her -- all he saw was Kellessan the swordswoman. Her hair was pulled back in a tight braid and coiled up out of her way. The sea breeze caught a few loose tendrils and blew them around her cheeks, but other than that, she could be a statue -- an icy-cold statue. Her eyes shifted back to Rik. Dorien had thought her eyes couldn't get any colder, but they did and a shiver ran down Dorien's spine. I'm glad she's on my side ... or I'm on hers at least.

*************************

Kell held Tavi in a stock still position and let her gaze roam the large seaside clearing. She found Dorien chained to a tree, thankfully far from the edge. Her eyes rested on his face, assuring herself that he was all right. She could see bruises and a few cuts, and from the way he was wincing away from the light, she surmised he'd been hit rather hard on the head and had a headache. She shifted her eyes back to Rik, letting her eyes frost totally over. You will pay for this. She smiled inside at Rik's flinch and involuntary half-step back. Too late to back out now. You're not getting away this time.

She swung down off Tavi's back and whispered a few words into Tavi's ear. He trotted over toward Dorien. A few of the slavers tried to stop him, but Tavi bared his teeth, pawing at the ground menacingly. They sidled away quickly and Tavi walked the last few steps to Dorien's side. He lowered his great head and lipped at Dorien's cheek gently. Dorien petted Tavi's nose, silently grateful for his protective presence.

Kell pulled her sword and stepped toward Rik. "I'm here. I'm alone. Let's get this over with. It's getting near to dinner time." She swung her sword a few times, loosening up her wrist.

Rik pulled his own sword, a long, thick, heavy broadsword. The rest of the men stepped back, forming a loose half-circle around the two combatants. And the battle began.

For the first minute, Kell and Rik exchanged parries and testing blows. Then Rik started in earnest, chopping down a particularly nasty blow at Kell, which rang off her sword in a shower of sparks. She grunted briefly with the impact, but didn't move back. Soon they were circling and striking out with hard swings, each meant to disable and possibly kill. The slavers started to chant, cheering Rik on.

*************************

Dorien forced himself to remember how to breathe as he watched Kell give and take sword blows. Blood trickled down one arm from a minor cut. And she was already favoring one ankle slightly which she'd twisted. But her face hadn't changed -- composed, determined, eyes still cold, but lit with a blue fury that fed her energy levels.

Dorien hoped it would be enough.

With the attention of the slavers on the fight and Tavi's large body shielding him mostly from being seen, Dorien felt that it was safe to try to get his chains unlocked. He shifted and stretched to reach into his boot and pulled out the small throwing dagger. Tavi's ears flickered a few times in acknowledgment of Dorien's movement, but the big horse didn't turn to look at him. And neither did any of the slavers.

He bent his head to look at the manacles on his wrists and began to work on the locks, raising his eyes from time to time to check on the progress of the fight. After he was free of the wrist manacles, he went to work on the ankle ones, which went a little faster. Even though he was upset that Rik was making Kell fight him, he was also grateful for the noise of the fight and the chanting as it covered the clanking of the chains and the manacles as he moved what he could aside.

His arms and legs free, he tugged at the chain around his waist. It was wrapped around his waist and chest and the tree several times. He grumbled when he realized the lock had to be on the other side. He shifted and twisted, hoping to maybe loosen the chains and squeeze himself out. No deal -- the chains were just too tight.

Disgusted, Dorien sat back, resigned to only watching the swordfight, which still had no clear winner. He winced as Kell caught the flat edge of Rik's sword against the cut on her arm. Well, mostly the flat edge. The sword skidded down her arm a bit, opening the cut more, and suddenly the trickle was no longer a trickle. The power behind the stroke knocked her back several feet and Rik pressed his advantage. Unconsciously, Dorien strained against the chains, wanting so much to help her.

To his surprise, the chains gave -- quite a lot, as a matter-of-fact. He twisted his upper body, using his hands to lower the chains down to his waist. He heard a soft sound behind him and turned his head to see Blaen's mischievous grin partly hidden by the finger raised to his lips as he motioned for quiet. Again, Tavi's ears flickered and his tail switched once, but the stallion was the only one who noticed. With Blaen's help, Dorien got free of the remainder of the chains.

Dorien breathed a question. "Where's Jydan?"

Blaen gestured around the trees surrounding the seaside clearing. "Somewhere here, not sure where though."

Tavi suddenly neighed loudly in alarm, prancing back a few feet. Dorien and Blaen turned back to the fight just as a sword came flying at them. Letting out an involuntary, but quickly muffled, yelp, Dorien ducked down, covering his head, while at the same time Blaen pulled back behind the tree. The sword impaled itself in the tree just a few inches above Dorien's head. He looked up -- it was Lachiellian. He jerked around to look at Kell, terrified at what he might see.

*************************

Kell strained to hold Rik's sword away, griping the pommel and hilt to keep the sharp edges away from her body. Her tired muscles screamed at her and her wounded arm continued to bleed and was weakening. She knew that this whole thing had to end soon or Rik would win. Summoning strength, she gave one heave, twisting, and manages to jerk Rik's sword out of his hand, sending it flying away from both of them. That was not what I had in mind. Before she had much time to prepare, Rik rushed her, taking her on in hand-to-hand.

From somewhere Rik pulled a knife -- a very nasty-looking long knife -- and started to hack down at her. She grabbed the knife, pushing it up as they struggled for control. Rik swiped out with one foot and tripped her. She fell backward, but yanked him with her, still grappling with the knife, trying to turn it. He fell on top of her with a heavy thud. Both grunted with the impact.

Neither moved.

*************************

Dorien just stared at the two bodies, waiting for something to happen, for someone to move. No one said anything, did anything, or moved. Except Tavi, that was. Tavi trotted over to the bodies, snarling at slavers who scrambled to get out of his way. He reached the center of the clearing and leaned down, nudging at Rik's body with his head a few times. The body slowly moved up and over and landed with a thunk, dust rising into air. A knife stuck up from Rik's rib cage and his mouth and eyes were open in surprise at his death.

Kell let out a huge gasp as her arm flopped back down to her side. Tavi lipped her cheek and nudged at her good shoulder, obviously wanting his rider to get up. Kell touched his nose, but didn't say anything or make any move to rise.

Dorien breathed out in a rush, not realizing he had been holding his breath. Kell was alive. Injured but alive. The phrases rang in his head as he willed his heart to find a regular rhythm again.

Before any of the slavers could move to either escape or attack Kell, Jydan and several of the men from Fariedel burst from the forested areas behind and beside Dorien and Blaen, all armed and swords drawn. Jydan was astride a huge black stallion, taller than even Tavi. His sword was in one hand, ready for use. His eyes were snapping with an icy fire.

"Any of you that want to die, just let us know. We'll be happy to help you along. Otherwise, drop your swords or knives or whatever else you're carrying. Now. I won't ask a second time."

There was a moment of silence and then the clanging of dropped weapons momentarily overpowered the roar of the sea.

Jydan nodded once. "Good choice."

*************************

Dorien pushed against the tree and hauled himself to his feet. Pulling Kell's sword out of the tree, he took one step toward Kell and faltered as his vision blackened. Blaen grabbed him to support him and walked with him, without comment, over to Kell's side. As they reached her, she was finally rising to a seated position, holding onto her injured arm, a grimace of pain crossing her features as she moved several feet away from Rik's body. Blaen waited until Dorien was settled next to Kell, then excused himself to go help Jydan tie up the slavers for transport to the nearest court, leaving Tavi to stand guard over Kell and Dorien.

Dorien laid Lachiellian next to Kell. "This belongs to you, I believe."

She ignored the sword and reached out her hand to him, but then pulled back, unsure of her reception. "Are you okay?"

He nodded, wincing slightly. "Yes, mostly. Headache, bruises, cuts. I'll live. You look in a lot worse shape than I feel."

She smiled slightly. "I might just have to agree with you there." She paused, then her voice dropped. "I'm sorry, Dorien."

He shook his head. "No, it's I who should apologize. I should have trusted you. You know Jydan, I don't. I'm sorry for getting so mad. I was jealous, I am jealous. When I look at him and then at myself, I have to wonder what you see in me."

Kell stared at him, her mouth opening and closing several times, searching for words. "Dorien, I'm not ... good with words. That's what you do. But you should know that I see in you someone who has made me feel again. I trust you -- with my parents and with my secrets. And you know that I have a hard time trusting anyone." She paused, then finished as she blushed a deep red, her voice dropping. "And I think I am falling in love with you."

Dorien took a moment to process what she'd said, then smiled back at her. "Oh."

Kell shrugged. "I never told you -- I have a hard time with that kind of stuff. But when I thought I might lose you, I knew I had to tell you."

Ignoring everyone else and the condition they were both in, Dorien leaned forward, and taking Kell's face in his hand, kissed her, long and soft.

As he pulled back to meet her eyes, he had to chuckle softly, whispering. "What a pair we make. Wonder what the nobles back at Brightstar will make of 'Linet' and the 'Royal Bard' next time they see them."

Kell laughed as well. "Forget them. What will my parents say? I think this was supposed to have been an uneventful trip."

Dorien groaned. "Probably withdraw my appointment. Well, I can always fall back to being a traveling minstrel, I suppose."

Kell shook her head, smiling despite the pain that was slowly catching up with her. "Just don't leave without me, minstrel."

Dorien inclined his head, planting another kiss on the tip of her nose. "Wouldn't dream of it."

*************************************
One month later . . . .
*************************************

Jydan shifted slightly again outside the formal throne room doors. Why did I agree to this? How did I let Kell talk me into taking this appointment? I'm a mercenary, not a candidate for a staid position in an army, much less the head captain of one. I'm not even Rillandan.

After disposing of Rik's body and unloading the slavers at the nearest prison, Kell and Dorien had presented to Jydan the idea of him being the new guard captain in Brightstar. The new troops needed a leader, someone already trained. He had questioned why Kell couldn't do it, but all she would say was that she had other obligations that prevented her from staying on long-term in Brightstar. Although the position sounded good and was very tempting, Jydan had hesitated, unsure.

Then Dorien had revealed that he worked at the Bardic Academy and added that Blaen was also included in their proposal. He could teach others his guiding skills and also maybe teach in the Academy. His and Jydan's knowledge of several different countries would be extremely helpful as they rebuilt the Academy's library of information and so forth.

Blaen, of course, had been thrilled at the idea of going to Brightstar and staying there. As much as he liked to travel, he also would like a place to call home, a real home. Neither he or Jydan had any real family left in their own countries, so there was no reason to go back. And both had come to love Rillanda and her people.

And so Jydan had accepted their offer. It had taken the last month to get everything settled up with former short-term employers both in Jourdain and Rillanda and had delayed their arriving in Rillanda until now. He had sent a brief note to Kell through various contacts to tell her they were coming and to let the king and queen know.

They had arrived in Brightstar an hour ago to find the court in session. Not knowing where to go, they headed for the partially-built Bardic Academy. They had been met by an older female bard by the name of Ryana who got word to the appropriate people that they were there. And after some time to bathe and change into clean clothes, they had been hustled off to the formal throne room to be presented to the full court.

*************************

Blaen threw a glance up at Jydan and suppressed a smile. He looks like he's ready to bolt. If I didn't know that he really wants to do this, I'd probably let him. But he wants to be here and so do I. I've roamed enough in my life. Time for a home, maybe a wife, a few kids. For both of us.

He touched Jydan's arm as he shifted again, whispering. "Just relax, Jydan. You've been among royalty before."

Jydan grunted. "Not like this. I feel like I'm going on display."

Blaen chuckled. "Well, if you are, then so am I. Just take a deep breath, let it out, tell yourself that you're relaxed."

Jydan did as he was told, muttering under his breath. "I am relaxed. I am..."

*************************

The doors opened in front of them and the guards on either side snapped to attention. Jydan took another deep breath and headed inside. Blaen was right beside him, as befitted his role as Jydan's partner and guide.

Nobles were on all sides, watching, murmuring lowly as the two foreigners made their way to the front of the throne room. Jydan kept his eyes on the two main thrones, ignoring the smaller throne set off to the side. Some part of his brain acknowledged that there was a woman sitting in it, but he didn't let his eyes shift over to her.

Upon reaching the bottom of the dais, Jydan straightened to his full height, Blaen standing beside and slightly behind him. The court clerk announced them. "Jydan from Eirena and Blaendironan from Gurodel."

Jydan and Blaen both bowed in obeisance, then rose at a word from Stefan. Jydan pulled his sword slowly from the scabbard across his back. Then he stepped forward and dropped to one knee, head bowed, holding the sword out before him, hilt first.

"King Stefan of Rillanda. I offer you my sword and my service to your kingdom as captain of the guard."

Stefan rose and moved down to stand in front of Jydan, taking the sword in both hands. "I accept your offer, Jydan of Eirena. My thanks and my gratitude. Please rise." As Jydan stood and took back his sword, Stefan stepped back up on the dais to address the rest of the court. "Our search for a guard captain is over. I present to you, Jydan of Eirena."

Jydan turned to face the rest of the court. He stood tall, then bowed his head in acceptance of the applause. He didn't move again until Stefan dismissed the court. Then he turned back around to rest next to Blaen.

Stefan's eyes went to Blaen. "I am told that you are Jydan's partner, his guide, and a seer, Blaendironan."

Blaen nodded once. "Yes, Your Majesty, I am. Please, just Blaen will do. And I offer my services as well."

Stefan smiled. "Accepted. And welcome to you both." He turned and lifted a hand to Raven, bringing her down to stand next to him. "This is Raven, my wife and queen."

Jydan and Blaen each kissed her hand as she welcomed them to Rillanda and Brightstar.

Stefan gestured someone forward from the edges of the dais. "This is our Royal Bard and currently unofficial ambassador of Rillanda, whom I believe you have already met."

Dorien stepped over, inclining his head, murmuring, "Jydan, Blaen."

Blaen blinked, then rolled his eyes, muttering, "Royal Bard. I somehow should have known."

Jydan laughed softly, then returned the greeting for the two of them. "Dorien. Good to see you again." He and Dorien had talked for a bit before Kell and Dorien left them and had resolved their differences. Hopefully now they could concentrate on being friends. Then Stefan turned to look at the side throne, gesturing forward the occupant. Jydan shifted his attention to the young woman who stood and walked over to Stefan's other side. Something about her, the way she walks, something...

Stefan introduced her. "This is our daughter and heir to the throne, Linet."

Linet smiled and curtsied gracefully. It was when she smiled that Jydan recognized her. His mouth dropped open, while at the same time he heard Blaen gasp with recognition as well.

Kellessan!

Linet held out her hand, still smiling, but with a glint of laughter in her eyes. Blaen recovered first, nudging Jydan hard. Nobles were still mingling in the throne room and whatever was going on, Blaen didn't want to be the one to ruin it. He took Linet's hand and kissed it, then Jydan did so, his equanimity recovered, his eyes only slightly dazed, his brain still trying to comprehend the fact that Kellessan the swordswoman was also Princess Linet.

She said softly, only a hint of amusement in her tone, "Thank you for your willingness to stay in Brightstar. I hope that we all will get a chance to know each other better during the next years."

Jydan inclined his head, hoping his voice sounded semi-normal. "That would be my hope as well, Your Highness." With a glance at Dorien, who only smiled at him, he went on. "I think we will have much to talk about."

Her smile only deepened and she replied, "I think we do, Guard Captain Jydan, I think we do."

- The End -


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