(Derkarya, Lopayzom lands bordering Aizkaur, 4 Redleaf, 1020)
(It’s been twenty years since the destruction of the last Fox village. It’s been nearly two years since the final, bloody battle in the border war between the Eastern and Southern provinces. The feared Khuradasu disappeared after completing his mission for that battle, and the Phoenix prince unexpectedly offered to end the hostilities soon after. With peace at hand, and no word on his adopted son’s whereabouts, Arjuna’s been under increasing pressure to marry and have children of his own. But the Fox is stubborn, and still embraces the thought that the only true way to honor those who went before would be to avenge them with as many Kaykolom as he could kill before joining them in death. He leaves the Dragon Palace for his annual trip to the destroyed village, and Kerza—without his knowledge—follows.)
Like always, a hushed stillness hung over the site he had come to regard as sacred. Though it changed little from year to year—more and more, the place was becoming part of the forest from which it had been carved—two decades had wrought many changes from that now long ago fateful night. As he had then, and many times since, the tall warrior dismounted and tethered his stallion to a tree before continuing on into the ruins of the village.
Silk whispered as he made his way through the ever-increasing underbrush. Birds chirped high above as he broke through and entered the grassy clearing that had once been the village green. His deep jade gaze remained focused on the grass-covered mound, the pair of fox statues holding silent vigil; never once did he glance to the sides to see the charred and blackened remains of wooden huts now alive with young trees and brush growing new and green through the ruins.
The Fox swordsman abruptly stopped, all senses on the alert. A figure was standing there by the mass grave, slender, willowy, apparently lost in prayer or contemplation. Scowling, hand resting on the hilt of his sword, the silver-haired warrior stormed forward. “How dare you?” he hissed.
The woman turned, her pretty face full of sadness as her long, raven-black hair flowed around her. “I do your kinsmen no dishonor, Arjuna,” she said, holding up a pale hand.
Once more Arjuna stopped dead in his tracks, surprised. The woman before him was far too pale, her cheeks sunken, and her violet aura weak and uneven. Her long silken gown seemed too loose on her slender frame. “Chaiya?”
The Raven Herald smiled faintly at the man she had once loved so well. She had hoped the spirits were willing to allow her to see him one more time. Suddenly wracked by a violent spasm of coughing, Chaiya pressed her hands over her mouth and fell to her knees, too weak to stand.
He was kneeling next to her in a flash, strong arms bracing her against the horrible coughing. That she was so ill stunned Arjuna. She had always had such a strong life force, and Avatars didn’t often succumb to disease. “You shouldn’t be here. You should be at home resting,” he admonished.
Despite the coughing, Chaiya managed to shake her head in a negative gesture. Once the spasms were over, she took a deep breath to steady herself. “I wanted to see you one last time, Arjuna,” she whispered, her wheezing breath marking the seriousness of the illness that ravaged her. “No amount of rest can stop this. And I knew you would come here, since it’s the twentieth anniversary of their deaths. Besides, you should be happy to know that at least one Raven less will soon walk the earth.” She tried to chuckle, but the attempt at laughter only triggered another spasm of coughing.
Arjuna shut his eyes and held her tight while her slender form shook with the coughing. A whirl of emotion filled him, a knotted tangle he just couldn’t put into words. “I never wished you ill, Chaiya, even though you had chosen to keep your post and continue to be the mouthpiece of the Raven with the developing war between our clans. If anything, I admired you more for your choice.” He shook his head slightly. “Yours is a death I will mourn, not rejoice.”
His presence was as comforting as always. The Raven Herald was grateful for this one last memory. “How I wish destiny had chosen a different path for us,” she murmured while nuzzling a cheek against his shoulder.
“Chaiya, don’t . . .” The silver-maned warrior pressed his lips against the top of the woman’s dark-haired head. “We both know it couldn’t have been any other way.”
“I was here, you know . . . Twenty years ago . . .” Chaiya pulled away from the warrior’s supporting embrace enough to stare up at him. “I tried to talk Irya out of it, but he just wouldn’t listen to me. I couldn’t do anything, Arjuna. I could only watch as the Herald.” A tear fell from a pain-glazed, pale green eye. “Such shame for the Kaykolom, to have done that. None of them were fighters, save one. They weren’t even of the noble families. Every drop of blood spilled cut into my heart as I watched because I knew how it would hurt you.” The ill woman closed her eyes and reached up. “Forgive me . . .”
Arjuna sighed deeply, covering the hand pressed against his cheek with one of his own hands. Deep sadness and regret filled the woman in his arms, coloring her violet aura to near black. How could he even try to maintain any anger against his former beloved when it was so clear that night had caused her almost as much pain as it had caused him? “Chaiya . . .”
“There was one . . . a woman with fire-red hair . . .” The Raven Herald paused while another round of coughing threatened to take over. Pulling her hand from under Arjuna’s, she covered her mouth and turned her head to the side.
The argent-maned warrior held the woman’s frail form against himself until the spasm subsided. He felt helpless, powerless; there was nothing he could do for her even though being here had taken most of her remaining energy. It hurt to see her reduced to such a state.
“She fought like a tiger,” Chaiya murmured. “She couldn’t stop the Raven—there were too many—but she made us pay for Irya’s decision with Kaykolom blood. I remember thinking at the time that her sword-style reminded me of yours . . .”
Arjuna froze, the ill Herald’s words breaking through the misery he felt. “A flame-haired woman with a style like mine?” he asked, deep jade eyes wide.
Chaiya looked up at the Fox noble’s handsome face and nodded. “Her skill took the Raven warriors by surprise. They had expected there to be no one able to make them pause, let alone cut them to the ground.”
“Well, well . . . how sweet,” a new voice declared. Deep and full of a sneering menace, the male voice cut through the stillness of the clearing. “I’d always wondered where your true loyalties lay, Chaiya. Now I know.”
The Raven Herald stiffened at the voice then frantically clutched at the verdant-eyed swordsman’s clothing. Pulling herself up to stare over Arjuna’s shoulder, she gasped, “Dashtru!”
A queasy feeling settled into Arjuna’s center, the only thing he could feel under his astonishment. Had she, at the last, betrayed him? A quick look at the woman clinging to him convinced him otherwise. She looked as surprised as he was; her entire presence held no hint of knowing the man was there. Cursing himself for being so distracted by his former love’s plight, the silver-maned warrior cast out with his Avatar senses. Four more Raven auras were near. Apparently this Dashtru person had brought some friends.
“I swear, Arjuna!” Chaiya pled, wishing to all that was holy he’d believe her. “I didn’t know I was followed. I would never betray you.”
The Fox swordsman nodded, shifting his position to face the Raven warrior slowly approaching them. “I know,” he murmured to the Herald. Jade eyes narrowed as Arjuna slipped into the stillness at the heart of his sword-art; the five Ravens around them certainly felt as if they had hostile intent.
Steel sang against wooden scabbards as the quintet of newcomers unsheathed their swords one after another. Dressed overwhelmingly in the blacks and deep grays favored by their clan, they all wore lightweight armor painted black with the Raven symbol in white upon the center of their chestplates. Raven-black hair of various lengths crowned their heads; the three who wore theirs longer than shoulder length had theirs pulled back by leather ties to keep it out of their faces. A couple of the young men appeared startled to find Chaiya huddling in the embrace of one of the last of the Fox, but mostly the Raven swordsmen’s expressions were ones of murderous glee—especially the one in the lead, who continued to stalk forward.
Chaiya rose to her feet. As her breath came in wheezing gasps, she stood before Arjuna in as defiant a stance as she could manage despite her weakness. She pulled her wooden sword, symbol of her office, and held it before her in a warding-off gesture. “Advance no more, all of you,” she ordered.
Behind her, the tall Lopayzom stood as well, hand ready on the hilt of his sword. If the young men wanted a fight, he was more than willing to oblige. But Chaiya needed to get out of the way, and he was worried she’d collapse again. She was barely standing as it was.
“What’s the matter, Chaiya? Afraid we’ll kill your pet Fox?” sneered Dashtru, his deep brown eyes staring at the ill but traitorous wench. “I bet you’re the reason why our chieftain’s been going soft on hunting down the last of these vermin of late. Been whispering in His Grace’s ear that enough’s enough?”
“It’s been over two decades now, and the wholesale slaughter of the Lopayzom has done nothing but shame us,” Chaiya replied, still standing as defiant as possible for her condition. “Now begone from this holy ground. You know it’s against His Grace’s wishes for any of the Raven to actively seek out the Fox to kill them.”
“Oh, I know, but I didn’t ‘actively’ seek out the old one there. I followed you, and look at what I got. A chance to get rid of the nearly legendary Arjunayazu himself.” Dashtru grinned evilly, still stalking forward.
“Chaiya, move. Get out of the way,” Arjuna murmured to the sick woman. He was certain he could defend himself against the five menacing warriors, but he truly was worried about the quivering Raven woman.
“No,” she whispered back, pale green gaze still locked on Dashtru’s elegant form. She knew these five and how skilled they were. One at a time, her former beloved could probably defeat them, but all five together would be a close call. Besides, she was certain Dashtru and his comrades had followed her on the suspicion that she would cross paths with Arjuna—a violation, in spirit at least, of the Raven chieftain’s current orders. “Once again, I’m ordering you to leave,” she shouted to her kinsmen.
“I have no reason to listen to you, traitor,” Dashtru snapped. “You’ve turned over the duties of your office to your daughter. You’re Herald in name alone. And here you are trying to protect the clan’s enemy?”
“If they wish to fight me, then let them,” Arjuna said to the shuddering woman, baritone voice low. “Just get out of the way.”
Chaiya stood firm. Too much blood had already been shed here. For too long had Iryasitru let hatred simmer between them all—all for something she was beginning to suspect had been arranged by a third party. “The Fox and the Raven both have been victims of someone else,” she murmured to no one in particular. “It needs to end . . .”
“Then let’s end it, bitch!” Violet energy flared to life as Dashtru unleashed his coiled power.
Only one Avatar out of the five, Arjuna noted, pulling his own sword from its wooden sheath. Expecting to be the target, the Fox took a couple of strides to the right and put a short distance between himself and the ill Herald. The sound of steel against wood made him turn his head to glance back at Chaiya. He stared in horror at the sight before him.
Dashtru had leapt forward, his first swing brutally disarming the raven-haired woman. The two halves of her now shattered wooden sword fell to the ground as the Kaykolom’s thrust skewered Chaiya straight through the chest. Blood dripped off the point of Dashtru’s long sword as the ill woman stared back, pain and utter shock on her sunken-cheeked face. Even as she instinctively reached up to grab the steel blade, the young Raven swordsman violently twisted the sword before wrenching it out of the woman’s slender body.
“Chaiya!” Arjuna shouted, not wanting to believe what he was seeing. Heralds were sacrosanct. Even the bitterest of enemies respected the person of a Herald. That her own kinsman had just struck down the very ill woman was . . . unthinkable.
At least I saw you again. And perhaps this is better than fading away a little at a time, Chaiya thought despite the searing pain and the sensation of drowning that enveloped her. Coughing up blood, she managed to choke out, “Live, Arjuna.”
“No!” the silver-haired warrior roared when he saw Dashtru raise his arm for a beheading swing. Just as he was going to leap forward, a flare of energy close to him warned him of an incoming strike from one of the others. Planting his left foot hard against the earth, Arjuna twisted and brought up his blade to block the other’s sword. Steel sparked against steel; the Lopayzom shoved back with his spirit energy enhanced strength and sent the Raven warrior staggering back. Eyes full of deadly intent, Arjuna jumped toward the one that had attacked him. Having recovered his footing, the young blue-eyed Raven lashed out with his blade, hoping to catch the approaching Fox. High strike, Arjuna thought, ducking low to the ground the moment he landed upon it. And another Raven joining from behind. Turning full circle while crouched down, he swung out and up. The long blade caught the other warrior at the side of the neck where the skull joined it. The Avatar-empowered momentum was more than enough to slice the head from the Raven’s shoulders. Blood spewed forth in a crimson fountain as Arjuna flipped his sword down low and near his right flank.
Still sensing a bluish-violet aura nearby, the silver-haired swordsman thrust upwards. Noting his blade only skidded off armor, Arjuna rose to his feet and spun around—then hissed in pain as he caught a glancing strike across the top of his left hip. Stepping back, he easily parried the next attempt the shorthaired Raven tried. Using his superior strength and speed, the Fox forced the young man’s sword away from his body. Steel screamed against steel. His opponent now wide open, Arjuna viciously reversed his blade and swung, cutting from the ground up. Silver light glowed from the heart of the Fox warrior’s weapon as he concentrated his spirit energy. The empowered sword cut the Raven in half from hip to opposite shoulder almost as if he were paper.
The other three auras were closing fast. Arjuna shoved aside the knowledge that he could no longer feel Chaiya’s presence at all; the time for grief was not now, not when he was fighting both for survival and to avenge the fallen Herald. The remaining Kaykolom were coming at him from three directions. Pointing his glowing, blood-streaked sword skyward, Arjuna waited for just the right moment. Closer . . . closer . . . Pause and energy preparing to strike . . . Now! “Heaven’s Shield!” the Fox nobleman called out, releasing a burst of silver spirit energy into his protective dome.
White light erupted from his sword. The trio of remaining Raven warriors found themselves shoved back by the very physical barrier of their prey’s magic. Staggering, they each fought to regain their footing on the now blood-soaked grass.
Arjuna dropped the shield and jumped. Spirit energy boosting his speed, he moved faster than the normal eye could see. The only hope any of his foes had to track his movements would be to sense his aura through Avatar powers. Landing behind one of the Kaykolom, the silver-maned Fox turned and viciously thrust forward. The point of his sword skidded off the other warrior’s armor, gouging off the black paint and leaving a silver trail in its wake.
“Look out! Behind you, Nakharu!” Dashtru called out in an attempt to warn his non-Avatar companion.
Too late. Arjuna grimly smiled, feeling the point of his blade slide off the thin metal plate and then into—and through—the young Raven’s neck where it joined the shoulder. Nakharu could only stare at the sky in pain and shock, gagging on metal and blood. A violent twist of the sword snapped the Raven’s neck. Nakharu’s body suddenly went as limp as a rag doll, a dead weight that pulled Arjuna’s blade to the ground.
Bone ground against steel. Cursing under his breath, sensing the rapid approach of the two remaining Kaykolom, Arjuna struggled to free his sword from the ballast that had just been a living man. The other Avatar was the greater threat. Feeling that one’s energy coil and the lash out, the Fox swordsman ducked under the violet arc cut through the air by Dashtru’s weapon. Arjuna then twisted and fell to the side. Gravity assisted his enhanced strength in breaking his sword free—but not without a price. Steel severed silk and flesh with equal ease.
Blood-speckled silver hair flowed like water against the ground as Arjuna rolled to his feet and assumed a crouching stance. Crimson bloomed against his fair skin, marking the shallow cut running from hip to shoulder where the non-Avatar Raven’s sword had slashed. The argent-maned swordsman embraced the pain, adding it to his focus.
The Kaykolom came at him together, sensing some advantage. Dodge, parry, swing, thrust—Arjuna let silver energy flow through him as he reacted to the changes within the violet auras crowding close. Steel rang out and hissed through the forest air. Though neither broke through his defenses, Arjuna was steadily forced back. Seeking to separate the two, the older warrior used the momentum from a dodge to wheel around to the right. His topknot flowed like a banner as he forced Dashtru to take up a position where the human Raven was between the two Avatars.
Dashtru snarled. He stepped back and then circled around his kinsman, determined to land a solid hit on the disgusting Lopayzom. The other Raven, a young man with brown eyes full of hate and fury, lashed out with his sword at the man he’d been taught for years was a despicable enemy.
The silver-maned swordsman stepped back. The human’s blade whistled in the air before him then sang out as the Fox’s sword clashed against it. Forcing aside the Kaykolom’s weapon, Arjuna leapt into the air. White light glowed as he brought his long sword up and over his head when gravity began to pull him back toward the blood-stained earth. “Die!” he shouted as he swung down and dropped onto his opponent like an avenging angel. Bone shattered under the energy-empowered strike as Arjuna’s blade bit deep into the top of his foe’s head.
White-hot agony then seared through the Fox warrior. Gasping, only his long years of training kept him from dropping his sword from pain-numbed fingers. The newly created carcass thudded to the ground as Arjuna glanced down.
Dashtru’s deep brown gaze stared back at his enemy with glee and satisfaction. A smirk on his handsome face, he gave his blade a vicious twist. It certainly wasn’t as good a wound as he would like—the sword only pierced the old Fox through a hand-span away from his right flank, so nothing critically vital had been hit—but it would be enough to slow the other Avatar down.
Arjuna bit back his scream as the sword within him was twisted and then wrenched out. He staggered backwards, left hand pressing against the entry wound.
“Not so invulnerable after all, are you, Your Grace?” Dashtru sneered while gracefully settling into an attack stance. Light glistened off the cutting edge of the Raven’s blade. Right arm back with sword held poised and parallel to the ground, Dashtru waited like a coiled serpent.
Arjuna straightened. Blood seeped down his flank as the Fox took a deceptively relaxed and open position. Crimson dripped from the point of his downward-held sword. Deep jade eyes stared back at his foe, their glittering depths full of rage.
Death hung heavy in the air. Its presence called out to her, leading her forward. Noting Arjuna’s chestnut gelding tethered next to the nearly overgrown trail, Kerza peered ahead. He was there, where death awaited. Fear jolted through her. Biting her lower lip nervously, the Swan maiden swiftly dismounted. Her blousy silken shirt and the folds of her skirt-like trousers whispered with her movements as she practically leapt to the ground. Trusting her mare to stay near the gelding, Kerza dashed through the underbrush along the fair track.
She emerged from the greenery, then came to a sudden stop. There, in the middle of a grassy space still open to the sky, she saw what looked to be a large violet-black bird—wings outstretched, beak wide open—menacing a wary but elegant white-furred fox. The images collapsed and solidified into those of two men facing off, swords bloodied and bared. One was a complete stranger to the wide-eyed Swan maiden, but the other . . . Arjuna! She gasped, heart pounding in alarm as she noticed her beloved was wounded. Slender fingers covered petal-soft lips in astonishment and worry.
Jade-hued eyes remained narrowed. The Fox stayed focused on his remaining opponent, though somewhere he noted the addition of a familiar, bone-white aura close by.
“Why so angry, Your Grace?” Dashtru inquired, his low voice slurring the title into an insult. “She betrayed our chieftain. There’s no worse crime a Herald can commit.”
“How dare you presume to have the right to judge,” Arjuna hissed. “You overstep yourself.”
The Raven Avatar smirked. “There are no bounds when it comes to the good of the clan.”
“You have no clan, you animal!” the silver-haired swordsman roared. Arjuna sprang forward, slashing furiously. Steel screamed out into the forest as Dashtru parried the vicious strike. Swift and furious, the older warrior pressed his attack, lashing out again and again.
It was all the Raven could do to counter. Dodge and parry—Dashtru’s very existence lay in instinct and reacting to the flow of silver energy flaring before him. Strands of blood-flecked black hair floated to the ground. Each jarring crash of weapons forced Dashtru to stagger back. If he didn’t do something to break the other’s assault, the Lopayzom could very well overwhelm him with strength and fury.
Sky-blue eyes still wide, Kerza watched from a distance as her beloved dominated his foe. Unsure what exactly had transpired, she could only stand by and hope the platinum-haired swordsman would prevail.
The hard-pressed Dashtru dodged yet another thrust. He ducked low and dived to the side, slashing at last on the attack. Arjuna neatly sidestepped the other’s blade and stabbed low. The black-haired Avatar hissed as pain lanced through him from a shallow cut across his left forearm.
They circled one another now, silver and violet flaring, clashing as violently as their swords. Arjuna blocked an overhead swing. While their swords were locked in a cross, each trying to push back the other through raw, enhanced strength, the two foes stared one another in the eye. Dark brown and deep jade met one another in a battle as fierce as the external one. Then Dashtru evilly smirked at the older man. Dropping like a rock to kneel under where their swords had been locked, Dashtru leapt forward. With his left shoulder, he rammed the other Avatar hard where blood still oozed from Arjuna’s wound.
New agony ripped through the Fox. He choked on his cry of pain as he staggered back and dropped to a knee. Sensing the Raven pressing the attack, Arjuna blocked the incoming blows with a raised blade. Dashtru snarled. Feinting high, the Raven attempted to sheathe his glimmering blade in his foe’s chest. Instead, he was forced to suddenly dodge as the Fox’s silver sword came at him from the side. The slash that breached Dashtru’s lightweight chestplate echoed the cut that now dripped blood down the younger swordsman’s skin.
Arjuna attacked with renewed fury. No longer as young and resilient as he had once been, the argent-maned warrior felt his strength slowly slipping away with each crimson drop. The battle would need to end soon or the Kaykolom would win on youth and endurance alone. Once more the two combatants circled one another in a deadly dance of slash and parry, thrust and dodge.
Other eyes remained focused on the warriors. Kerza barely remembered to breathe as she watched the two Avatars struggle against one another. The momentum kept shifting back and forth—first to the Raven, then to the Fox—in a complex balance between opposing, dynamic forces. But death remained thick in the air, its chill touch lingering like a morning mist. One or the other would soon fall to its greedy grasp.
Steel rang out. The white-haired maiden sucked in a gasp as a particularly strong strike by the Raven forced Arjuna to slide back against the battle-trampled grass. No, please! He can’t lose. He can’t die! . . . What’s that? The Swan blinked, suddenly aware of another presence in the distance. A golden spark, it seemed as if it were a shard of the sun rising from the southwest. Hazarding a swift glance, all that greeted her wondering gaze was lush, green underbrush. Then the clash of swords ripped her attention back to the deadly struggle.
Dashtru thrust forward. Arjuna moved slightly; silken strands from his topknot were shorn by the razor-sharp edge of the Raven’s sword. The Fox countered with a stab of his own. Dark paint was torn from the younger warrior’s armor as the tip of Arjuna’s blade slid up along the metal plate’s surface. The argent-maned swordsman’s weapon slipped past the top of the armor and bit deep into the Kaykolom’s shoulder. Steel grated against bone as Dashtru yelped and pulled back, disengaging his foe’s blade before Arjuna could render more damage. Even so, it was a telling blow. Pain now lanced through the black-haired warrior as he lifted his weapon.
The Fox swordsman regrouped, then darted forward. Silver light arced through the air as Arjuna attempted to take advantage of his younger foe’s wounded right shoulder. Sparks flew as the brace of blades ground against one another. Dashtru shoved aside the searing agony, determined to cut his hated enemy down before his fighting arm grew too weak to continue.
The golden aura was coming closer. To Kerza, it seemed like it was a falling star flashing parallel to the forest floor. The Swan maiden once more risked looking away from the mortal struggle. Sky-hued eyes scanned the shadowed spaces between ancient trees for any sign of the approaching—and strangely familiar—presence. Then a shout from the black-haired swordsman turned her focus back to the fight.
Dashtru lunged forward. Arjuna turned. The Raven’s blade flashed past mere inches from the Fox’s unarmored chest. Arjuna slashed from the side and up; sparks flew as the two swords clashed again. Forcing his taller opponent’s weapon up and away, the black-haired swordsman then lifted his left hand. Violet energy burst forth in a concentrated blast into the Fox’s exposed abdomen, slamming Arjuna off his feet. Shouting in triumph, Dashtru charged his tumbling enemy.
The silver-maned warrior rolled with the momentum, twisting his tall, lithe body to rise to his feet. He only had time to lift his sword off the ground before white-hot agony tore through him again. This time Arjuna couldn’t suppress his scream; deep jade eyes closed in pain as his left hand wrapped itself around the sword impaling him through the belly. Above the stricken Fox, Dashtru smirked in satisfaction. His athletic form remained frozen in the position of his thrust. Light shone off the handspan or so of blood-streaked fine steel emerging from Arjuna’s back. One good twist and a sideways slash, and it’s all over, the Raven warrior gloated.
Oh no! No! Kerza gasped, utterly horrified at the sight.
Golden energy impinged itself on the Raven’s awareness, interrupting his mental celebration. Another Avatar was fast approaching. “Eh?” Dashtru said, taking a risk and glancing in the direction he could feel the other aura.
Even the gravely wounded Lopayzom sensed the newcomer through the pain that threatened to choke everything else out of his awareness. Thin lips quirked up into a faint smile. He recognized the incoming golden energy. Despite the agony of a sword sheathed in his abdomen just under the navel, Arjuna managed to utter a soft chuckle. “How . . . appropriate . . .” the older swordsman murmured.
Dashtru’s sneer of triumph swiftly changed to wary alarm. His stricken foe seemed to know who the Avatar with the sunlike aura was. That alone was enough to make the Raven assume he now had a second enemy with whom to deal. The old Fox could probably wait, especially with such a wound. Growling, Dashtru pulled the blade out of its fleshy sheath and swung around to face the direction from which the golden spirit energy came, stance ready for an incoming strike. Arjuna hissed as the other’s sword cut into his left hand. The verdant-eyed swordsman then sank to a knee, slashed hand covering the abdominal wound as he huddled over in agony.
The young Raven never saw the other Avatar’s approach. One moment sun-bright light appeared at the edge of the clearing that had once housed a village and the next a short, slender warrior with bushy orange hair and glowing gold eyes seemingly materialized in front of Dashtru. Those eyes . . . Dashtru thought while a shiver of dread ran down his spine.
It didn’t matter if a fight was still ongoing. The silver-maned Fox was gravely wounded. “Arjuna!” Kerza called out, leaping into a run. White hair flowed behind her as she covered the blood-spattered distance to her stricken beloved.
The black-haired warrior snarled and lashed out at the newcomer. The golden aura shifted slightly as the stranger easily countered with a swiftly unsheathed blade. In the heart of the yellow light, the Raven caught the image of a red-furred fox. The other one! Dashtru gasped. Now determined to cut the redheaded swordsman down, the brown-eyed Raven thrust at his new foe’s slender form.
The Swan maiden skidded to a stop next to the injured Fox. Kneeling next to him and embracing him around the shoulders, she began to softly sing while staring up at the other two men. Heavy with spirit energy, the magical song was designed to boost a person’s natural healing and keep someone from sliding into shock. Though normally all who heard the melody would be affected, by virtue of Kerza’s touch it would benefit Arjuna alone. The very idea of helping out the Kaykolom, even accidentally, made the white-haired woman ill at heart.
The bushy-maned newcomer easily dodged the Raven’s swing, then countered with a strike of his own. Violet clashed with gold as Dashtru parried, but the shorter warrior forced the taller swordsman’s blade to the side. Then the redheaded man leapt into the air. At the height of his arc, the younger Fox executed a graceful flip. He then landed in a crouch behind Dashtru, facing the Raven’s back.
Huh? the black-maned warrior thought, seeing no sign of his new opponent in front of him but sensing the golden aura now behind. Realizing how vulnerable he was, Dashtru swiftly spun around—but not fast enough. The smaller man charged the Raven, coming in under the other’s violet-hued swing then slashing from the side and up with full strength and focus.
Kerza gasped in utter amazement, momentarily forgetting her healing song. Sky-hued eyes wide, she could only stare as an empowered blow that should have cut the Kaykolom in half only sent the black-haired man flying through the air. Whatever the effect, the newcomer seemed certain the fight was over; as Dashtru landed noisily a number of feet away to lie in a huddled, unmoving mass, the redhead straightened to his full height and sheathed his glittering blade.
Sensing that the other Fox was victorious, Arjuna lifted his head and gazed with pain-filled jade eyes on the young man standing there. The orange-haired youth was as short as ever, but slender now, not skinny, his graceful musculature having more definition than the last time the silver-maned warrior had seen him. Arjuna couldn’t help but feel proud. The boy he had saved had grown into a fine young man. “Full circle, Karavasu,” the older Lopayzom murmured as the other’s large, amber eyes stared down at Arjuna in worry and concern.
Kerza glanced up at the younger swordsman. “Is it over?”
Kara nodded as he knelt down before his wounded mentor. “The Raven’s not going to wake up for hours yet.”
“Wake up?” Arjuna asked in disbelief. Sure enough, the despicable Kaykolom’s aura still glimmered in Avatar senses. “You didn’t kill him? Do you have any idea what he’s done?” Not only did his wounded soul cry out for instant vengeance, it was hard to comprehend that the young man known as the Demon’s Claw had not slaughtered Dashtru like all the others Kara had faced.
The orange-maned warrior closed his eyes momentarily, wincing at the fury in the injured man’s voice. “I knew only that you were in dire trouble. Still, regardless—”
“That animal murdered Chaiya,” the silver-haired Lopayzom hissed.
The other two stared at the wounded Avatar, faces paling at the implications. For Kerza, it was absolute horror that there was someone so uncivilized to kill his or her own clan’s Herald. It broke all the rules of proper conduct.
Kara, however, understood so much more. Well aware of his mentor’s history, all the orange-haired man could do was give the older warrior a look of sadness and sympathy. The younger Lopayzom bowed his head, shaggy bangs sliding forward to obscure his pretty face. He silently offered a prayer to the soul of the woman who had long held a special place in Arjuna’s heart. “I’m so sorry,” Kara murmured.
Growling under his breath, the argent-maned warrior attempted to struggle to his feet. The black-haired swordsman needed to be put down like the rabid animal he was. But slender hands pulled Arjuna back; the Swan maiden put her strength into trying to keep the injured warrior from moving.
“Don’t, please,” Kerza begged. “You mustn’t strain yourself.” The thought of losing him chilled her to the bone. “Let Kara secure the warrior. Justice for the fallen Herald is better served if we let His Grace the Raven decide.” The white-haired woman hugged Arjuna against her lithe form.
Kara lifted his head. Reaching out, he laid a slender hand on the older Lopayzom’s shoulder. Concern remaining plain on his face, the young swordsman added his voice to the protest. “Please, Father, listen to her.” Noting his dear mentor’s expression take on a cold, hard glare of disapproval, Kara gulped and quickly bowed in embarrassed apology. His shaggy orange topknot swayed as he said, “Forgive my impertinence, Master Arjuna. I’ll go bind the Raven.” Kara stood and turned away, his shoulders drooped and his youthful body wilted in stance.
How could he? Kerza wondered, a surge of sympathy for the dejected youth filling her. She bit down on her lower lip, determined to keep silent. Now wasn’t the time to comment, not yet. Turning her attention back to her wounded beloved, the Swan maiden murmured, “Please, just relax. Let me help you heal.” A tear threatened to roll down a pale cheek as she started to sing her energy-laden melody once more.
The redheaded Fox’s sadness wasn’t lost on Arjuna. Though instantly contrite, he remained silent. Instead, he closed his deep jade eyes as a feeling of vertigo washed over him. With the immediate danger now gone, he was losing his fighting focus—and his body was beginning to react to his various wounds. Starting to feel cold and tired, Arjuna realized he’d soon fall to the ground if he remained trying to kneel. Accepting the inevitable, the Lopayzom chieftain lay down on the blood-spattered ground.
Kerza moved with him, continuing her gentle embrace, sitting upon the grass so that the wounded man’s head rested in her lap. Her soft song continued; she lightly brushed aside a few strands of platinum hair from Arjuna’s face as she stared down at his pain-stricken countenance. His silver aura was growing weaker, uneven, but she also sensed it was stabilizing with the help of her spirit-laden melody.
No footsteps gave away Kara’s approach; he walked as silently as ever, ghostlike. Feeling his golden aura near at hand once more, the white-haired Swan glanced up. The orange-maned youth stared down at them, large amber eyes full of sadness and worry. The long sash of goldenrod silk normally wrapped around his slim waist was gone, and he held his sword by its cherrywood sheath in his left hand. He knelt down before the other two Avatars, setting his weapon on the verdant ground.
Arjuna grimaced, the pain he sensed in the younger warrior’s aura only exacerbating his own physical and emotional agony. Why can’t you understand that for the proper discipline, there must be some distance? the silver-haired swordsman thought, opening his eyes to gaze up at Kara. Noting the chastised-puppy expression still on the youth’s face, Arjuna sighed as the amber-eyed warrior bent forward and retrieved something from off the battle-scarred forest floor. “Kara . . .”
The younger Lopayzom straightened, his master’s fallen sword held firmly in a slender hand. Pulling a square of cloth out of one of his sleeve’s pockets, Kara began wiping down the shining steel before turning his attention to his fallen chieftain. “Yes, Master Arjuna?”
Despite the queasiness and pain, Arjuna managed a faint smile. “I am glad to see you again. It’s been too long. Had I known we would cross paths, I’d have brought a birthday gift.”
Kara swiped off the last of the blood from the silver-haired warrior’s magnificent blade. Dropping the now-stained cloth to the ground, he paused, seemingly hesitant or unsure of something. Then he sighed and tugged the black-lacquered sheath for Arjuna’s sword free of the deep blue sash tied around his master’s waist. “The best gift you can give me, Master Arjuna, is for you to live.” The glimmering long sword slid home with a soft snick.
“I’m not a young kit any more,” the older Lopayzom growled as the orange-haired youth reverently laid Arjuna’s sheathed sword out along its owner’s side.
Picking his own weapon up, Kara gave the man who had raised and trained him a long, beseeching look. “You are, however, an Avatar and a chieftain. How I wish love wasn’t so . . . selfish.” That, or I was already dead . . . he silently added, lowering his honey-hued gaze to the blood-streaked grass. Sighing deeply, the redhead gracefully stood.
Under her gentle hands, Kerza could feel her beloved’s body reaching some sort of stability. Letting her soft song come to an end for the moment, she gazed up at the standing man, sky-hued eyes wide. “What are we going to do?” she asked, her voice tinged with her concern. They were deep in the forests bordering the mountainous Northern Province, surrounded by death with one gravely wounded.
“Do you have wards with you?” Arjuna asked.
“Yes, in my pocket. Why?”
“If you set them up around the two of you,” Kara said, “I can travel to the Dragon outpost for this area for some help.”
Arjuna smiled, relived to hear that his student had been thinking along the same lines. “The outpost isn’t that far, to be honest,” the silver-maned swordsman replied. “It’s just that the paths to it are not the most direct in the world.” He shifted his body slightly, moaning softly as new agony sparked through him. Pushing it aside, he focused on his younger kinsman. “You’re certain that . . . offal will remain unconscious?”
Kara nodded, shaggy topknot swaying. “His will was far under my own, even with his battle fury. His energy flow should be disrupted for a long time yet. But on the off chance I read him wrong, he’s tied quite securely with my sash. Either way, I don’t think he’ll cause you trouble while I’m gone.”
“You should have just killed him,” the older Lopayzom murmured. Somewhere over there lay the remains of the woman he’d so adored—and the one responsible still polluted the world with his breath. Chaiya, I’m sorry . . . Arjuna silently pled, anguish threatening to drown him.
Kara turned away. He walked out of the bloody clearing with head bowed and shoulders drooped, sword still clutched in his left hand.
The Swan maiden watched the orange-haired youth disappear, her expression one of sympathy. Once Kara was out of her sight, she turned her attention back to the wounded man lying against her. “It’s the duty of all to see that justice, not vengeance, prevails,” Kerza said, her melodic voice soft. Especially chieftains, she added.
Arjuna grimaced. Neither one understood—could understand—the hurt that tore at his soul as painfully as his physical wounds did his body. “Just see to the ward,” he growled, closing verdant eyes again.
Kerza suppressed a sigh of disappointment. Gently sliding slender fingers through the fallen man’s thick mane—his hair was as silky as she’d imagined it to be—the Swan maiden carefully cradled his head. “I’ll be right back,” she assured him while slipping out from under him and delicately lowering his head to the ground. She stood, absently smoothing out her loose-fitting pants.
“Kerza . . .”
The girl froze, glancing down at the Fox lying on the ground. “Yes?”
“Please . . . Don’t let Chaiya . . . lie out there for the scavengers . . .”
The white-haired maiden winced, a stab of painful jealousy momentarily assaulting her heart. How silly to have assumed there’d been no one at all, Kerza chastised herself while lightly biting her lower lip. She spun around, not wanting to expose her sadness to him. “I won’t,” she said, fumbling around in the pocket built into her blouse’s sleeve and trying not to cry. So enamored he’d been by death, would the fallen Herald become something even dearer to him now?
Behind her, Arjuna frowned. Something was bothering the delicate Swan. Even through the haze of pain surrounding him, he could sense her aura being . . . off. Shrugging the sensation away, the silver-haired warrior concentrated instead on just lying there and conserving his energy. He could feel sleep tugging at him—a natural reaction for an Avatar, to divert spirit energy into stabilization and healing—but he didn’t feel comfortable just letting go until the warding shield protected them.
The gems that tumbled out into her delicate, waiting hand were polished with loving use. Amber, ruby, sapphire and emerald reflected what sunlight filtered through the verdant canopy high above. This particular set of warding stones had been a gift from her father, the second present the Swan chieftain had offered that long-ago night. The first had been freedom for her to follow her heart’s desire. But could she ever compete with the fate Arjuna had chosen for himself? Kerza sighed again, walking toward the east. Blood, death, and endings hung thick over the clearing, yet endings often gave way to new beginnings in turn. All she could hope for was that the Lopayzom chieftain would decide that there could be a new start from this tragic moment.
For now, though, she would concentrate on protecting them all. He had specifically asked for the dead woman to be within the circle. As she glanced around, Kerza chose to include the other bodies as well. As far as she knew, they were probably only guilty of following their leader to a lonely death far from home. No reason to leave them to the forest denizens, especially with their leader lying unconscious and defeated. Lifting her hand toward the east, she began to sing her invocation.
Such a lovely voice, Arjuna thought. He lay there, doing his best to ignore the pain and just listening to the Swan’s voice as she called out to the four Guardians of the Quarters one by one. By the time she was standing near him and singing the final verse that would create the shield around them, the injured warrior was hovering on the edge of unconsciousness. Dimly aware of the white-maned maiden sitting next to him and lifting his head to use her lap as a pillow once more, Arjuna let sleep finally take control.
This, then, is the end of the Fox? a voice asked in the midst of darkness.
It’s out of our hands. It’s up to His Grace to decide, answered a second voice.
His Grace . . . Arjuna frowned as he mentally repeated the words. The title had certainly been his for a decade and a half, but still it hung uneasy on his shoulders. That should be properly directed to His Grace, Sikitu. The moment he thought of his former chieftain’s name, the image of the older man appeared before the silver-haired warrior.
Youthful, fit, vibrant of life in Arjuna’s memory, the former ruler of the Fox gazed back at the younger warrior with a steady golden-brown stare. An elaborately embroidered silken robe decorated with Fox crests and bamboo leaves covered the former chieftain’s wide-shouldered, athletic form. Shoulder-length red hair framed the dead man’ elegant, gently-smiling face. Though his lips didn’t move, Arjuna heard the familiar but now long-gone voice. What do you see, Arjuna, when you look in a mirror or a still pool of water? Do you see the Fox Chieftain? Or do you see only a failed Swordsmaster?
The jade-eyed warrior’s heart lurched in renewed anguish. The first duty of the Fox Swordsmaster is to protect the Chieftain and the clan . . .
But you became more than merely our Swordsmaster, Sikitu responded, the faint smile remaining on his face. And all of us were proud of your position within our overlord’s government. Your appointment gave us all great honor.
Love and loyalty are treasures, but even they can be harmful in the extreme, a voice Arjuna didn’t recognize interjected.
Sadness and longing overwhelmed the silver-haired swordsman as Sikitu’s image wavered and began to fade into the surrounding darkness. The Chieftain is the soul of the clan, Arjuna. As the soul goes, so goes the body . . .
A new image formed around him, one that startled the wounded Fox. He found himself standing in a blacksmith shop, the instruments of the trade scattered about the wooden structure. Heat radiated from the forge while the thump - ting - thump - ting of the striking hammer resounded throughout the shop. Deep jade eyes blinked in surprise at the man pounding away on what looked to be an exquisite sword. It was the crippled Bear, standing there bending the glowing metal to his will.
Aizu? Arjuna wondered, not quite believing what he was seeing.
As if he heard the silver-maned Fox’s call, the lumbering Bear looked up. Unlike the others, who seemed to be ghosts of the past, the curly-haired weaponsmith actually appeared to talk rather than look on while his voice was heard. “So what now of your grand plan, Arjunayazu?” the big man’s low voice rumbled as he paused in his heated and sooty work. “The blade is forged and tempered now—but you ignored the omen you were given, didn’t you?”
“Meaning?” the taller man responded in kind. Here, wherever he was, talking was much the same as thinking.
“You have your weapon, and an exquisite one it is. But that weapon has a name,” Aizu replied, hand remaining on his resting hammer. “And you’ve forgotten the meaning of the name, haven’t you?” When the silver-maned man only glared back with dark jade eyes, the Bear continued, “Your weapon has a soul, Arjuna, one that loves life. One that is very much like your own.”
No man can flourish if his heart and soul are divided, murmured Sikitu’s voice from some place Arjuna couldn’t discern.
The image of the smithy faded into nothingness. As it did, Arjuna noted the crippled Bear picking up the half-finished sword on which he was laboring and plunging it into the depths of the blazing forge. The silver-haired warrior couldn’t help but wonder if the vision he’d just experienced was an indication that the Bear had overcome his limb’s weakness to personally make blades again.
There are only two paths left for you to tread, the former Fox Chieftain said while Arjuna stood alone in the darkness. And the path you choose will determine the fate of the clan. Your soul remains strong and desires to live, but your heart is full of guilt at your perceived failures. If you would follow your heart, then do so now, Your Grace. Choosing to let things remain will only prolong the agony for you and all who care for you. If you remain divided now, your body will not recover and the end result would be the same. You will join your ancestors and the Fox will wither from history.
But if you choose to embrace the path your soul longs to travel, then you will live and the Fox have a new start, said a soft, familiar—and quite feminine—voice. Deep violet light appeared before Arjuna’s wondering gaze, solidifying into an image of the newly-deceased Raven Herald. No sign of her injuries were on her now. Instead, she appeared healthy, youthful and as beautiful as Arjuna remembered her being back when their love for one another was at its strongest.
The argent-maned warrior’s heart lurched painfully as Chaiya’s image approached him. Forgive me, he started to apologize only to have the elegant woman reach out and press a delicate finger against his lips.
It is over and done, Arjuna. Don’t dwell on your inability to protect me but rather remember that it was a swifter end than the illness would have granted. Large, pale green eyes stared up at him with a mixture of fondness and melancholy. Please, Arjuna . . . Don’t let Irya’s spite win. Don’t let yourself and the Fox become only memories within Aizvaryan history. No matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise, people need you--moreso than the spirits who have gone before. Chaiya lowered her hand and then her gaze, turning to the side to stare off into the distance. The girl who will soon ascend the Dragon Throne needs you. Derkarya needs you for stability during the transition. Your son desperately needs you, but so long as you stubbornly embrace death, he will avoid you. And there is one whose heart yearns for you.
Arjuna winced at the Herald’s words regarding the younger Lopayzom. I did what I thought was right, he replied, reaching out to take one of Chaiya’s hands in his.
The Raven Herald turned her melancholy gaze back to the warrior. Sighing, she firmly pulled her hand from his gentle grasp. Arjuna . . . there truly is nothing here for you, not yet. Let go of the past and look to the future, she said, staring down toward the darkness on which they were somehow standing. Fight back against this fate Irya would impose. To do otherwise would only let Irya truly win. Live, Arjuna, for yourself and the Fox. Your ancestors would far rather see you and your son fight to restore the clan to what it once was then to have you join them now, no matter how many of their enemies you take with you. Chaiya lifted her pale green gaze, meeting the silver-haired man’s deep jade eyes. What we thought we could have is also in the past. Even here, we could not be together. You deserve to be truly happy, and I made my choice long ago. It is not you for whom I now wait, but rather Irya.
The wounded chieftain shook his head in disbelief. Why? he finally managed to choke out, though confusion and hurt still remained.
Irya needs me, Chaiya responded. And there is another that needs you, one who, if you allow her, will make you far happier than I ever could. The black-haired spirit turned and started to walk away into the shadowed nothingness. You deserve one whose heart isn’t divided. But it would be unfair if you remained divided as well, the willowy Raven’s voice said even as her image faded from view.
Arjuna sank to his knees. Head bowed, he didn’t bother fighting the tears—not this time. Agony of soul and body overwhelmed him. He grieved for so many losses: the whole of his clan, Chaiya and now her love, everything he’d sacrificed in order to facilitate his thoughts of a glorious death while avenging his fallen kin. He felt old and weary, almost too tired to go on.
A soft song broke through his silent sobbing while gentle fingers ran gently through his long silver hair. As he became aware of the comforting presence through his grief, the gorgeous melody faded away. “It’s all to mourn what’s been lost,” a musical, feminine voice assured as those gentle fingers moved to lightly massage his shoulders. “The past shouldn’t be forgotten, but it’s life that should be celebrated.”
Arjuna lifted his head while taking in a deep breath to calm his shuddering. “All a waste . . .”
Slender arms embraced him from behind while a cheek pressed against his back. The scent of orange blossom lingered around him. “It will only be a waste if you let it end here.”
The argent-maned chieftain closed verdant eyes, head still tilted upward. The woman’s presence was more than merely calming. In her embrace his weariness seemed to melt away, giving him strength to face life and forge a new beginning. He softly sighed.
A breeze blew through the clearing, ruffling the lush vegetation that had long ago staked a claim among the crumbling, charred remains and sending white strands of hair dancing in its wake. For the hundredth time, Kerza noticed just how silent, isolated and lonely the site was. Despite the comfort of her warding shield, her senses remained on the alert for any trouble.
Sky-blue eyes gazed down at the handsome visage resting in her lap. Noting that the breeze had tossed some of Arjuna’s blood-flecked hair into his face, Kerza gently brushed the silken strands aside. Up close and asleep, the Fox Chieftain seemed very mortal, very vulnerable. A sparkle under his long eyelashes caught her attention. She blinked, startled, as a tear rolled down his cheek. He’s . . . crying? she wondered, watching another drop glisten as it fell.
Even as she wondered about his tears, a voice shattered the uneasy stillness of the clearing. “Ho there! Your Grace? Lady Kerzama?”
The Swan maiden stiffened. Glancing about, she called out, “Who goes?”
“Lieutenant Aisiku of the Fourth Sapphire Outpost!”
“Over here!” Relief filled Kerza, chasing away her fears. Gently lifting the sleeping Lopayzom’s head and lowering it carefully to the ground, she rose to her feet. “A moment and I’ll drop the ward.”
The creaking of leather and soft conversation filled the air. Twenty mounted men rode into the clearing, each clad in the identifying colors of their unit: golden-brown pants and shirts of various shades of blue. They surrounded three vehicles, escorting the pair of four-wheeled carts and enclosed carriage into the destroyed village.
“We’re safe now, Arjuna,” Kerza said, smiling. She lifted her arms and sang the verse that dismissed the warding dome protecting them. The white energy faded away, leaving the Swan maiden able to now sense the auras of the warriors approaching. She felt even more relieved to note that the various animal totems were all from clans traditionally under the auspices of the Eastern Province.
The rider in the lead raised his hand. As the rest of the Dragon warriors came to a halt, he approached a few paces closer before stopping as well. His pretty chestnut mount snorted, the long tassels of gold and blue swaying, as the young leader gracefully dismounted. He was of average height, his dark blond hair pulled up in the topknot ponytail that was a favorite hairstyle of warriors. Kerza couldn’t help but smile as she noted he was of the Rooster clan; his very air, and the way he moved, seemed to unconsciously mimic the animal. Aisiku certainly had the same proud air a rooster did. “Lady Kerzama?”
“Yes,” the Swan maiden replied. Stepping aside, she turned and gestured to the tall form lying upon the ground. “His Grace is there, gravely wounded.”
Aisiku nodded, his youthful face grim, worried. “Lord Karavasu told us. We would have brought a medic along, but he said you could look after His Grace’s injuries?”
Kerza nodded. “I can. I have skills in healing craft.” She gestured to the vehicles, surprised at the presence of them all. “What are those for? I mean, I understand the carriage . . .”
“Lord Karavasu said that His Grace would wish to carry the Raven Herald’s remains and the prisoner back to the Kaykolom lands. We’ve enough men here to send you and His Grace back to the nearest town to recover and to take the body and prisoner back to the Raven.”
“No.” The voice was soft, but still carried through the clearing. All eyes turned to the silver-haired chieftain struggling to stand. Once he was back on his feet, Arjuna took a moment to steady himself before meeting the lieutenant’s worried gaze. “I won’t go cower in some town to recover—”
Seeing the Lopayzom sway, Kerza ran to his side. Wrapping an arm around him, she insisted on being a support against which he could lean. “You should reconsider,” she gently protested. “Even a short journey could aggravate—”
“No,” Arjuna insisted. He turned his attention back to the leader of the Dragon force. “I will go with the rest of you to the Raven.”
What? The Swan maiden stared up at Arjuna as best she could. He was weak, wounded, and insisting on traveling to the very stronghold of his sworn enemy?
Sensing the sudden tension in the slender woman next to him, the Lopayzom chieftain gave her a reassuring hug with the arm wrapped around her waist. “Chaiya was right,” he whispered, his words for her alone. “There needs to be an ending.” Still feeling her unease, he added, “I don’t intend to let them kill me, nor do I go to seek Kaykolom deaths. I hope to be able to make peace with Iryasitru.”
Arjuna’s words filled Kerza with hope, even as his reassuring embrace left her feeling overly warm. Could he actually be letting go of his death wish at long last?
“Are you certain, Your Grace?” Aisiku uneasily queried. It was obvious the War Minister for the province was badly wounded, and travel of any length often made such injuries worse. The lieutenant couldn’t help but feel as if his career in the Dragon Army would be utterly doomed if the commander of the very generals themselves happened to die on his watch.
Arjuna nodded. Just so there was no doubt left for the nervous Rooster, the silver-haired swordsman replied, “That’s an order, lieutenant. You and your unit will escort me, Lady Kerzama, the prisoner and the Herald’s remains to His Grace, the Raven.”
The younger warrior gulped. “Yes, sir.” He turned, glancing back at the dismounting members of his unit. “What of the other bodies? Lord Karavasu gave us an accounting of the dead, so we brought enough stasis shrouds for them.”
Kerza glanced up. Noticing the suddenly grim set to the Lopayzom chieftain’s jaw, she swiftly interjected, “No need to let them lie here, Your Grace. Even if they had known all along their leader would kill the lady Herald on sight, they’ve paid with their lives. Think of the mothers or wives who would have no closure, no body to bury and mourn.”
Tension left Arjuna’s tall form as he sighed. “Collect them as well, lieutenant. We’ll send all of them home.” Noting that they’d once again mentioned the younger Lopayzom, the silver-haired general glanced about. There was no sign of the amber-eyed youth, not even a glimmer of his familiar gold aura. “Speaking of Lord Karavasu . . . Where is he?”
Aisiku shifted his attention back to the older warrior. His expression changed to one of embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Your Grace, but he didn’t return with us.”
A sick feeling settled in Arjuna’s stomach, adding to the continuing pain from his wounds. “Then where is he?” I have so much to say to you, to apologize for . . .
The blond officer’s face flushed a deeper red. “I have no idea, Your Grace,” Aisiku reluctantly admitted. “He came to the outpost, met with our captain, then hung around long enough to be sure we had enough carts and supplies. But when it came time to head out, he’d just disappeared, like a ghost.”
One part of Arjuna’s mind was surprised at the depth of sadness that engulfed him even as he staggered under the weight of it and his wounds. He’d tried hard to keep the emotional attachment to a minimum. Only now did he realize how miserably he had failed in that. Feeling very old and tired again, he muttered, “I need to lie down.”
“Please, let me help you,” Kerza insisted even as she gently tugged the tall general toward the carriage. She smiled with relief as he staggered along with her, not resisting her assistance.
The waiting carriage was actually a dual-use palanquin. Essentially tiny rooms with curtain-shrouded windows and a sliding door on the left side, such solid wood conveyances were built to be carried by men holding a pair of solid poles thrust through the brass rings fastened to the sides while in town. The narrow streets and crowded surroundings of many large towns made palanquins more convenient, but impractical for long distances. Hence the invention of horse-drawn, four-wheeled carts upon which palanquins could be bolted. The vehicle’s driver, a young man with sand-hued hair, gave the two a faint smile as Kerza and Arjuna approached. He swiftly lashed the reins of his team of horses to a peg in the center of the bench-like seat, then jumped to the ground below. The young warrior pulled open the palanquin’s sliding door. Politely bowing, he murmured, “I hope this will be sufficient, Your Grace.”
The silver-maned Lopayzom nodded. Anything would have been sufficient, but a quick glance inside showed that the vehicle was configured to allow the rider to lie down within. Wide enough to accommodate two sleeping mats, it looked as if such mats were covering the bottom of the vehicle’s cab and various thick pillows and blankets were piled within.
“Can you stand a moment longer?” the white-haired Swan softly asked. “I’d like to see your wounds washed and be sure they’re no longer bleeding—especially the back one—before you lie down.”
“Let me lean against the palanquin and I think I can manage,” Arjuna responded.
Kerza smiled and helped the tall general to the side of the black-painted vehicle. Slipping her slender arm from around him, she turned her attention to the driver. “Please fetch me some water and a cloth and your medical supplies.”
The sandy-blonde bowed and rushed off to do as she asked.
Kerza glanced back at the wounded general. Noting that he was already attempting to shed himself of his now-tattered and bloodstained shirt, she gently brushed his hands aside and started undoing his shirt herself. The ruined silk dropped to the ground as the Swan critically looked over Arjuna. Even in his mid-forties, he was still athletic and sleek. That he kept himself in such good shape probably helped him survive his wounds so far. The deep wounds in belly and flank looked to still be oozing blood, but not alarmingly so; her song had done the most immediately necessary work to stop the flow of vital fluid. Stepping around to his back, Kerza noted that the two exit wounds also looked clean—a good thing especially with the belly wound—and that the Raven’s sword had thankfully exited underneath the ribcage and to the side of the spine. She leaned close enough to inhale deeply, sorting through the scents. Though the hot smell of blood was almost overwhelming, she could detect no telltale reek that would indicate his intestines had been torn open.
Arjuna remained leaning against the side of the sturdy palanquin, head bowed and eyes closed. Quite aware of the Swan’s attention on him—for some reason, that knowledge made him feel a bit flushed—he murmured, “So how bad does it look?”
“Not as bad as it could be.” Movement catching her pale blue gaze, Kerza turned and smiled at the approaching warrior. “Ah, thank you,” she said with a smile as she took the offered bowl of water. “Go ahead and set the supplies on the ground.” As the blonde warrior did so, then bowed and walked to the front of the carriage, the Swan maiden took the cloth draped over the side of the bowl and started dabbing at the wounds in Arjuna’s back. “No damage to anything protected by your ribs, and I don’t see any signs right now of a perforated bowel.”
“Odds are—” the Lopayzom began to say, opening his eyes.
“I know what the odds are, Your Grace,” Kerza said, voice firmly interrupting him. “But we shall deal with what happens as it happens.” As she stood before him to wash off the front wounds, he noted the worried expression on her face. Then her sky blue gaze lifted to his own.
They remained staring at one another for a long, breathless moment, she holding the blood-tinged bowl of water while he leaned against the carriage. The white-haired woman found herself blushing, feeling flustered, under his intense jade-green gaze. But a wash of pink also colored his cheeks as he said, “It’ll be all right, Kerza.”
She nodded, somehow believing him. Something subtle had shifted within him, something she could sense but not quite define. Still blushing, the Swan maiden turned her attention to finishing her task.
Quite aware of the woman dabbing away at his wounds, Arjuna tried to keep the conversation going. “I wish Kara had returned with them.”
“You were a bit harsh on him,” Kerza pointed out as she knelt down. Setting the bowl on the ground, she rummaged through the leather bag containing the medical supplies brought by the Dragon warriors. “He sensed you were in danger, came to your defense, and all you did was rebuke him.” She ripped open a packet and dumped the powdered contents into the water.
“I know.” Arjuna sighed, then continued, “I want to apologize to him. I shouldn’t have said what I did.”
Gracefully standing, the slender woman began swabbing away at the general’s wounds again. The powdered herb was one known to not only help stop bleeding but also keep wounds from festering. “I’m sure he attributes much of what you recently said to anger and pain.”
“Perhaps about Dashtru, yes. But the other . . .”
“You mean about insisting once again you’re only his teacher, nothing more?”
“Yes.” Arjuna winced as Kerza rubbed the wet cloth against the belly wound.
“You adopted him, Your Grace. He’s legally your son and he knows it,” the Swan responded, shifting her hold on the cloth. Dipping it again into the herbed water, she pried apart the slash in the tall general’s pants and tended to the shallow wound on his hip before moving on to the shallow wound that ran diagonally across his torso. “Ever since he discovered that fact, he’s been trying to be a son of which you could be proud, not a student.”
“I am proud of him,” Arjuna said, a soft growl creeping into his tone.
“But as a son? Or as a student?” Kerza asked while stepping behind the wounded man.
“Of course as a son,” the silver-haired chieftain replied. Resting his head against the palanquin’s side, he closed his eyes once more.
“Mmm,” she answered noncommittally, wiping down the two wounds on his back. “Have you ever told him that?” Reaching down to the satchel, she retrieved a few rolls of bandages and began expertly padding and binding the Fox’s injuries.
“Excuse me, Lady Kerzama,” one of the soldiers interjected, standing at a respectful distance. “The prisoner’s injuries . . .”
“They’re not severe. I’ll tend him once we reach town. We are going to the nearest town, because I’m not going to allow Lord Arjunayazu to travel with battlefield dressings on his wounds.”
“You’d attend that creature?” Arjuna asked incredulously.
“It’s a healer’s duty to ease pain and mend injuries. And there’s no honor in leaving a defeated enemy to suffer, as well you know.”
“So you’ll tend him as you tend me, is that it?”
She raised her eyes to his, and there was an unexpected intensity in those soft blue depths. “You are not a duty, my lord,” she said very quietly. Cinching the binding around his abdomen, she added, “I know what he has done, and I despise him for it as you do. But he will be punished enough by the Raven chieftain, and delivering him in fit condition to face justice will reflect well upon the Lopayzom’s honor.”
“What do you care for the Lopayzom’s honor, Haesom?” he said; the words seemed harsh, but his tone was far more questioning than chastising.
“At least as much as you do, Your Grace,” she answered calmly. It seemed an innocuous enough response, but the subtle meaning made it a sharper bite. At least as much as you do—if the least part of her regard for Lopayzom honor was equal to all of his regard for it, she cared more than he did.
Properly, he should hand her up into the palanquin and wait while she settled herself before entering as well. This time, however, Arjuna found himself being assisted up by the Swan woman, whose soft and delicate appearance concealed a surprising amount of strength. He might have tried to resist the slight breach of protocol, but the calm determination on Kerza’s face as well as his own bodily weakness suggested that such an attempt would be futile. With no more resistance than a reluctant scowl, he let Kerza help him into the vehicle and settle him comfortably. Lying down on the pillows, a blanket tucked around him, he watched as Kerza climbed back out to speak to the driver.
“Make the best speed you can while avoiding rough ground,” she instructed briskly. “I don’t want His Grace jostled. His wounds have stopped bleeding, but too much jolting could start them again.” She raised her voice a notch. “Lieutenant Aisiku! Send a rider ahead to the lord’s house in town. I want the household prepared for our arrival. There is to be a litter at the front door and a bathhouse ready for use, and the physician is to meet us at once.”
“Yes, my lady!”
It seemed strange, hearing Kerza issuing orders as directly and firmly as Arjuna himself might. She had always been so retiring, so modest and quiet; it was Divaksina who had been the forceful one. Perhaps that’s where she had picked up the trick, but she seemed somehow accustomed to command. Still, it was startling to see such a different side of the graceful woman. Arjuna kept his gaze on her as long as he could, but she quickly moved out of sight of the palanquin’s open door. Sighing wearily, he laid back and closed his eyes.
The soft sounds of someone climbing into the palanquin roused the Lopayzom chieftain a few moments later. Glancing up, he saw that the white-haired Haesom had returned, Arjuna’s sheathed sword held firmly in her slender hand. Kerza smiled gently at the wounded man as she reverently laid his weapon down between Arjuna and the far wall of the vehicle’s cabin. That she ended up leaning over him in order to do so, inadvertently giving him an intriguing close-up of her willowy form, made a faint blush return to Arjuna’s otherwise pale cheeks.
She closed the door, sitting down and arranging the pillows a bit. “The Dragon warriors have more securely bound the prisoner with rope now. I left Karavasu’s sash tied to one of the fox statues, in case he decides to return for it.” Her sky-blue gaze swept almost professionally over the Lopayzom’s blanket-shrouded form. “Sleep if you can, my lord,” she advised, tucking in a fold of the coverlet. “Your body wants to heal itself, and that is best done if you rest.”
“I know that,” he murmured.
“Then why are you still awake?” The tone seemed genuinely curious rather than chastising, but Arjuna had a sudden recollection of how adroitly Kerzama had been able to handle her temperamental friend. Yelling at Divaksina or outright ordering her to do something was pointless, as any number of people from the members of her own family to the various harried nursemaids who had attended her had discovered. Somehow, the gentle Swan had managed the spirited Dragon without ever raising her voice, and Arjuna was beginning to get the feeling that he knew how she’d done it.
Even so . . . He smiled wryly while closing his eyes. “The view was too nice not to enjoy for a moment,” he murmured even as he gave in to his body’s demands to heal.
He woke without remembering exactly when he had fallen asleep. The carriage had stopped moving, and Kerza was not sitting beside him. She was standing just outside, watching as a pair of burly menservants lifted Arjuna out of the palanquin by picking him up in the sling of the blanket wrapped around him and moved him to the waiting litter as carefully as if he were made of thin glass.
“The room must be away from any noisy areas of the house, well-heated, and free from drafts,” Kerza was saying to an older woman—the housekeeper, to judge by her clothing. “The windows should be well-draped. If fever sets in, his eyes might become oversensitive to light. The bed linens must be absolutely clean, and extra covers should be readily available. I’ll have him in the bathhouse for a while, so you should have ample time.”
The woman nodded intently. “I’ll see to it at once.”
Kerza turned to a small, thin man who stood nearby, holding a heavy-looking leather satchel. “You have the usual herbs and salves?”
“Of course, my lady. As well as some preparations of my own devising, which have proven most effective in treating deep wounds. I also have a quantity of fresh bandages with me.”
“Excellent. If you will remain in readiness, I will call you into the bathhouse when I need you.” She looked at the two menservants. “Come along.”
The small procession moved smoothly through the house, which was obviously the home of a wealthy nobleman. The bathhouse was spotless, with extra towels and buckets waiting for use. In a few moments, Kerza had arranged four benches side-by-side and end-to-end, folding a thick towel to use as a pillow, and Arjuna was transferred smoothly from the litter.
The door closed, and the Fox chieftain was alone with the white-haired woman. He watched her with a sort of drowsy curiosity; she touched his brow gently with one hand. “You need not exert yourself, my lord. I will see to everything.”
“I’m a bit concerned that you will indeed see to everything,” he murmured whimsically, and was rewarded with a sudden blush.
“I’ve assisted you with baths before,” she reminded him, untying his waist sash.
“Never in quite these circumstances, though.”
“True. You may go back to sleep, my lord,” she said primly.
“And if I don’t wish to do so?”
The Swan maiden lightly brushed her fingertips against Arjuna’s brow once more. “It’s not a good idea to fight against your body’s wishes. You do trust me, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then sleep and recover. Everything here is taken care of.”
Arjuna sighed, closing his eyes with the intent of merely humoring her.
He woke again when the door opened once more; he was aware that his hair was damp and his skin relieved of its coating of sweat and dust, a fresh loincloth giving him some modesty. Kerza was conferring in low tones with the physician as she began undoing the hasty bandages.
“. . . cleaned the wounds as well as I could under the circumstances. I am relieved to be able to tend them properly now.”
“Understandable, my lady, quite understandable. One does what one must, but it’s always preferable to do things the right way.”
The pain had never truly gone away, and Arjuna sucked in a sharp breath as the two deep wounds in his abdomen were exposed to the air. Kerza’s hands stilled at once. “My lord?”
“Can we make this quick?” he inquired through gritted teeth.
“Not if we want to do it properly,” she said, and looked at the physician. “We’ve had a detailed discussion, sir. Will you be able to assist me if I’m unable to talk further?”
He nodded confidently. “Quite able, my lady.” He was pulling various jars and bottles out of his satchel.
Kerza looked back at Arjuna’s pale face. “Relax, my lord. Don’t fight me.” She drew a deep, slow breath.
And she began to sing.
It was a low, wordless melody, gentle and calming; he could feel her Avatar power reaching out, settling into him. The agony of the wounds faded as she blocked his body’s reception of pain signals, numbing his flesh. His thoughts became clear once more, his mind no longer fogged by the physical agony. There’s nothing to fight, Arjuna wearily noted. Jade-hued eyes flickered closed again as the whole of his tall form relaxed. With the pain gone, there was little left to divert his attention from his Avatar reaction to use his spirit energy to heal. His head turned to the side as he slipped into semi-consciousness, giving himself entirely into the hands of his blue-eyed nursemaid.
Kerza worked efficiently, making herself clear to the physician with a look or a gesture when necessary. With the physician helping to lift or turn their patient as necessary, the deep stab wounds in Arjuna’s abdomen were each washed out and well-dosed with salve before the Swan took a needle and silk thread to set stitches, drawing the edges as closely and neatly together as possible.
“My lady,” the physician murmured, “it is clear that you are indeed a healer, reaching far beyond my abilities. I must wonder why you trouble to use mundane treatments when you can set things right in such a different way. If you would not mind answering once we are done here?”
She half-smiled in the middle of her song, bent over the Fox chieftain’s midsection, and nodded. The melody that took the pain away was something she scarcely needed to concentrate on, but the neat, careful stitches demanded more attention. Arjuna’s silver aura glimmered at the corner of her eye; despite his grievous injuries, his Avatar power was strong and healthy. Most importantly, the Lopayzom swordsmaster wanted to live—very much so. It was a strange contrast to the shadow that she had perceived on him before. From the first moment she had ever seen him, she had intuitively known that here was a man who carried a deathwish, restrained from embracing it only by the need to train the young Karavasu in the art of battle. Something had happened, leaving his spirit whole at last even though his body was seriously damaged.
The other sword-cuts were far less severe, and the Kaykolom warriors’ well-sharpened swords had left surprisingly clean-edged wounds instead of tattered ones. Rather than using stitches, Kerza again availed herself of the physician’s special preparations. He had explained that the dark-brown stuff was composed partially of the tar from pine trees, and could bind the skin neatly closed over shallow wounds. She was pleased to note that it appeared quite effective.
With the slashes treated, Kerza and her assistant worked on bandaging. The wounds were lightly padded so as to soak up any fluids while still permitting some air to reach the Fox’s abused flesh, then securely bound with long strips of clean white cloth. When they were finished, more of Arjuna’s torso was covered than not, and Kerza sat back on her heels with a long sigh, rubbing the back of her hand across her forehead. Noting his relaxed face, she let the song drift to a close.
“It’s because healing, even magical healing, takes time,” she said, as if there had been no time at all between the physician’s question and her reply. “There are some few Avatars that can seemingly erase wounds in only a moment or two, but for the most part, it is accomplished by directing and enhancing the body’s native energy to accelerate the natural process of healing. Within a few days, no one will be able to tell that His Grace ever suffered the wounds across his chest and hip, but the impaling wounds will take much longer. Applying ordinary treatments eases a patient’s discomfort and helps his body recover more swiftly.” She glanced at the door. “If you’ll call the servants in, it’s time to move him.”
The room was as she had requested—located at the back of the house, away from regular traffic areas, it was convenient to the bathhouse and the privy, warm and draft-free, with heavy cloth hung over the windows to filter the light. The bed was freshly made and turned down, a stack of extra blankets resting on the chest at the foot of the bed. Under Kerza’s watchful eye, the Fox chieftain was moved once more from the litter, settled into the clean linens and snugly tucked in.
He groaned quietly as the door closed; though the effects of the Swan’s song had lingered for some time, they were fading now, the pain coming back. It was hardly a surprise when her gentle hand touched his face, though everyone else had left the room.
“You’ll be all right, my lord,” she murmured.
“I feel like hell. I’m getting too old for this.”
The Swan maiden smiled gently. “You and I both know you’ll rise to any future challenge, Your Grace.”
“True . . . but I’m still getting too old for this.”
Kerza’s smile lingered as she threaded slender fingers through a stray lock of his pale hair, flicking it out of his face. I’m thankful that whatever happened, you’ve decided to stay and continue to grow “too old”. “Try to sleep again, and you’ll feel better.”
“I don’t think I have much choice in the matter,” Arjuna muttered softly.
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” she agreed serenely, settling into the chair beside the bed. She noted the tight lines at his eyes and lips, and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Do you wish a draught to ease the pain?”
“No,” he murmured. She would have chastised him for showing off his bravery for no reason, except that he followed the refusal up with almost plaintive words, one hand coming up to touch hers where it lay on his shoulder. “I would like it if you would sing again, Kerza. Please.”
Tears threatened her eyes, but there was no hint of it in her soft voice. “As long as you wish it, and as long as I can, my lord.”
“Thank you,” he said simply, settling his head back on the pillow and closing his eyes. He relaxed visibly even as she began the song again, letting the sweet voice take the pain away and guide him down into sleep.
Traveling carefully as they did, it took the Derkaryan party fifteen days to reach the capital of the Kaykolom lands. For just over two solid weeks they crossed streams, rivers and forests with the recovering Fox Chieftain and their grim cargo. Nights were spent at what inns they could find—the Dragon warriors sleeping in barns with the vehicles, along with the magically-preserved corpses and the bound prisoner—or camping out in the wilderness. Those times where they were out in the open, Kerza slept in the palanquin next to Arjuna.
The silver-haired chieftain spent the majority of the journey slipping in and out of semi-consciousness. Fever had set in after the second day and he lost track of time in its grip. Nor could he recall much from that period once the fever had broken; all that remained in his memory were disjointed images of speaking with Sikitu and some of the other dead Fox in his dreams—and always the ever-present aura of the Swan nearby. Her presence remained an anchor, keeping him from drifting too far while the fever was at its worst. Four days later, the fever broke for good; the remaining nine days had been spent recovering his strength, taking longer and longer walks along the trail to get his body back in tone, and thinking about what to do with his future and that of the clan.
Oddly enough, Arjuna continued to get the sense that Karavasu remained somewhat nearby. Though the younger Lopayzom kept himself closed through the psychic bond they shared—something he’d done ever since he’d left the Dragon Palace, though his reasons for doing so changed over time—the recovering swordsman couldn’t shake the feeling that his adopted son had shadowed them across the width of Aizvarya. The knowledge both gladdened and saddened Arjuna.
Dashtru, however, continued to make anger burn in his heart. The sullen captive had kept to himself throughout the journey, bitterly complaining only when the Dragon warriors insisted he remained bound and forcing him to be fed and watered like an infant. While Arjuna had been lost in the depths of fever dreams, the murdering Kaykolom had recovered quite well from the wounds he’d received in the battle. Kerza tended him with a sort of distant, professional demeanor, seeing to his wounds and nothing more, unlike the care and concern she showed for the Fox. Dashtru accepted her treatment with a sort of sullen politeness; he had only shown one flash of defiance when she had gone to check him over at the noble’s house, snapping at her to “stop that damn singing”.
A few moments later, Dashtru had requested, through clenched teeth, that she resume her song. With only a faint smile, she had done so, and carried on setting the neat stitches in his flesh.
Held in contempt by the majority of the Derkaryan group, Dashtru traveled in the cart with the shrouded bodies, leaving only during moments needed to allow him to relieve himself—and even then, he got an escort and assistance from the Dragon warriors.
Now, however, the first streaks of sunlight appeared in the east. Stirring from warm cocoon of blankets lying next to her beloved patient, Kerza immediately sat up as carefully as possible and let her senses focus on the sleeping man next to her. His breathing remained relaxed and regular; his silver aura was steady and nearly as strong as she recalled it being before the confrontation in the destroyed village. This day would see them at the Rookery in an hour’s time of travel. Giving in to impulse, Kerza reached out and lightly stroked the pale blond hair fanned out around the sleeping Fox.
Hearing the low talk of some of the Dragon warriors, the gentle noblewoman resigned herself to leaving the source of her subtle torment for a short while. It wouldn’t reflect well on Derkarya if they arrived at the ancient seat of the Kaykolom like ragged, unwashed beggars. Pulling open the palanquin’s door, Kerza stepped out into the growing dawn.
At her gentle insistence, a couple of blankets were strung on ropes to provide some privacy for a makeshift bathhouse in the camp. Gently bullying the small contingent of mounted swordsmen to clean up first, Kerza then slipped off deep into the brush to take care of a rather pressing personal need.
On her way back, however, a sound came to her as she retraced her steps back toward the encampment. “Psst! Kerza!”
Startled, the Swan maiden turned, looking this way and that, unable to see whoever had hailed her. She fell back a step out of sheer reflex when the tree above her rustled faintly and a slender figure dropped out of the branches onto the ground before her.
“How is he? Is he going to be all right?”
“Kara?” she said, blinking. It was indeed the small, slender young swordsman. Her pale eyes were immediately drawn to his waist; the goldenrod sash left behind was there, holding in place the sheathed sword at the Lopayzom’s side. “He’s sleeping now. Two of those wounds are going to take some time to mend yet, but he’s in no danger for the moment.”
His face took on an expression of genuine relief at the maiden’s gentle words. Quickly straightening from a crouch, Kara frowned and blurted out, “What in heaven was he even thinking? I expected him to stay in Derkarya and recover and let the warriors escort the Kaykolom home.”
“He’s thinking that it’s time—past time—for the conflict to end. He’s going to meet with Iryasitru and try to make peace between the clans.”
“Peace?” The young swordsman’s voice broke on the word. “Him? After all these years of dreaming only of Kaykolom blood staining the land while the Lopayzom make one final bid for glory in the history scrolls?” He stared at her, looking somewhat like a wounded animal, caught between hope of release and anger at fate.
“I think he’s gotten tired of blood,” she answered softly. “He’s seen his entire clan slaughtered, save for himself and you . . . and now he’s seen this private war destroy Lady Chaiya, too.” She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat. “They each chose duty, but she . . . he always . . . you know.”
It was startling to see the quiet strength of the Swan crumble. Shaking his head, doing his best to set aside his own overwhelming emotions, Kara closed the distance between them. Lightly resting a hand on her shoulder, he gazed up at her with understanding sympathy. “I know. He’s never made it easy for those who love him. Does he still cling to her memory even now?”
“I . . . don’t know.” She reached out automatically to push Kara’s shaggy bangs off his forehead. “You know how he is. He hasn’t spoken of her, except in a sort of general way when the subject of the bodies that we’re taking back to the Rookery comes up. Yet he seems to be more at peace with himself, somehow.” She managed a smile. “But he’ll be glad to see you.”
He froze, his expression instantly panicked and wary both. “I can’t. Not now.” He shook his head in the negative, obviously agitated. “Why do you think I’m talking to you right now? If I could see him, I’d already be there bugging him.”
She looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean, you can’t? Oh, he’s sleeping at the moment, but you can look in on him and speak with him when he wakes up.”
“I just . . . can’t.” He shook his head again, then stared up at her, the golden eyes haunted. “Do you even know what sort of a fate he had in mind for me the entire time he raised me?”
“Of course I did. You told me a few times, in your long-winded, hyperactive, and roundabout fashion. Not all of it, exactly, but I put it together.” Kerza reached out again to snag a lock of his bright hair and tuck it neatly back. “I thought that you would be glad to know that he’s chosen to abandon that path and seek peace instead.”
“Maybe . . . but after all this time, how can any of us know for sure what he has in mind? You saw how angry he was when I didn’t kill Chaiya’s murderer. He’ll be furious to know that really, I couldn’t kill him.” The young Lopayzom stepped back, tugging on the plain hilt of the weapon at his side. A few inches of bright steel gleamed in the morning light.
“You couldn’t? But . . .” Kerza tilted her head, then leaned down for a closer look at the weapon.
The blade was as bright as any, but there was something odd about it. “I’ve lost the will for slaughter. I just can’t do it any longer. A weapon normally doesn’t care what it does. It only exists to be wielded by its owner. But I’m not like that. I can’t just go on killing and ignoring the blood that stains me or the lives I’ve ruined.
“To be a weapon has always been my father’s plan for me. I just can’t do it any more. And I can’t walk over there and find out if that will infuriate him or not.”
There’s something strange . . . She blinked, then stared. There’s no edge on that blade. She raised her eyes to Kara’s face. “As for whether or not it will upset your father . . . he really does seem to be sincere about making peace between Raven and Fox.”
“Sincere or not, it’s just too soon.” He sighed and let the sword slip back home. “Over and over I’ve heard how the sword of a Fox is to protect people, yet swordsmanship is all about slaughter. Some people die so that others might continue to live. Yet, there should be another way. I don’t have the will to kill any longer, nor can I turn my back on protecting those who need it. So I’m trying to find a new way.”
“By carrying a sword that doesn’t have an edge?” She eyed him thoughtfully. “As someone who’s been trained extensively in the use of blunt weaponry, I feel the obligation to point out that if you hit someone in the chest with a sharp sword, they’re likely to expire fairly quickly. If you do the same thing with a mace or a quarterstaff, you’re likely to turn at least part of their torso into a sack of beans.”
Kara blinked for a moment, completely startled. Then he softly chuckled, his expression quickly shifting to amusement. “I’ve thought of that. Honest. I know blunt damage can do far more serious injury than a sharp edge. The sword’s the way it is to keep me from doing accidental injury. I could channel my will just so with my old sword, but the edge would still cut. This way . . .” He brightly smiled and continued, “I pull my attacks and I don’t rely on the sword doing the damage. Rather, it’s more a battle of wills, of spirit energy. You saw the result of my hitting that murderer . . .”
“Yes. I’ve been looking after the results of your father hitting him, and by comparison, your attack was downright gentle.”
“And yet it was my attack that sent him unconscious for hours.” The youth didn’t seem to be bragging so much as stating a fact. “But it wasn’t enough, not for Father. He’s never been happy with me unless I was improving my ability to end lives.”
Kerza shook her head. “That’s not entirely true, Kara. You’re his son, and he cares about you for far more than your prowess in combat.”
“Son? He won’t even let me call him ‘Father’ to his face, Kerza,” the young redhead growled, his soft tone betraying his hurt.
Without needing to think about it, the Swan put her arms around Kara, hugging him tightly. “I know. I’ve spoken to him about that.”
Hugging her back, he sighed. “I’ve tried my best, but it’s never been good enough. And now, I can’t even stomach continuing what I was doing in the first place.”
“I think that if you explain it to him, he’ll understand.”
“I . . . can’t.” Slowly he released the Swan’s willowy form. Stepping back, he gazed at her with large, sorrowful amber eyes. “I want to believe that after all this time, he’s changed at last . . . but I can’t. Yes, he’s risked much coming here after being seriously wounded, but maybe he’s only saying he wants to make peace.” He fell suddenly silent, as if he didn’t want to continue his line of thought at all.
“It’s a sudden change of heart, but I believe that it’s sincere, Kara.” She raised an eyebrow. “What’s on your mind?”
He jumped and blushed, much as he did as a child when he was caught doing something that he knew would get him in trouble. “Um, it’s just . . . I was thinking . . . er . . . Well, what if he’s just saying that and he’s really here to end it all like he’s always imagined? I mean, I’m an adult now and Chaiya’s been murdered before his eyes . . .”
Kerza stared at him. “Are you thinking that he might be planning to get inside the Rookery on false premises and try to kill as many Kaykolom as he can before they cut him down?”
He helplessly shrugged. “It’s possible. I don’t know. He’d always meant for me to go down with him, but my lack of presence may not stop him. He’s been planning on this fate for years. Why suddenly change so? And yet, I pray to the Goddess that it is a sincere change. If it is, if he’s really intent on making peace . . . I’ll certainly support him in that.”
“I don’t know precisely what might have made him change his mind, unless it was either Chaiya’s death or his own severe wounding.” She paused, biting her lip slightly. “Though . . . he said some odd things while he was delirious. It was as if he were talking to Lord Sikitu, or other Lopayzom.”
Kara just stared at her for a long moment before relaxing slightly. “Maybe . . . Well, you’re a Haesom. Does he still feel like a man with a deathwish?”
“No.” The answer was immediate and firm. “That passed from him in the ruins of the last Lopayzom village. I don’t know exactly why, but I felt that weight leave him. He wants to live, Kara. If it weren’t for that, even I might not have been able to help him this far on the path to recovery.”
“Then maybe, at last . . .” The younger Fox looked hopeful. “Maybe he actually desires a peaceful ending and a real future for our clan. That would be nice.” He smiled, taking a couple of steps backward.
“I think that he is.” She smiled. “Will you look in on him, then?”
Kara paused, then shook his head in the negative. “No. It’s too soon. I want to believe all this, but I just can’t quite do so, not yet. But I’ll be near, watching. We’ll see what happens. However . . .” His expression shifted; suddenly he was no longer the kind, often gentle child she’d known but rather a harsh, unstoppable predator. “If he truly does seek to make peace and the Kaykolom strike him down, then vow or no vow, new path or not, I will become Father’s weapon one last time.”
The change was startling enough that Kerza took a small step back. She had known Kara for over ten years, but this was a side of him she had never seen before—the side that had been forged in the fire of battle. She had wondered why he was called “Demon’s Claw” in all of the wild rumors and stories; now she could see why. There was an unyielding ferocity about him, a reminder that although a fox is a small, graceful, playful creature, it can still be a vicious, cunning beast of prey.
“Iryasitru may spurn the offer,” she admitted. “But he won’t do a blessed thing on the spot. Outnumbered or not, there will still be Dragon soldiers with us, and it might be considered an act of war against Derkarya. No matter how much he hates the Lopayzom, I don’t think the Raven will risk that. Besides which, it would be an unforgivable breach of hospitality—even those who have supported him in his crusade against your clan would be appalled, especially since Arjuna’s making the journey while he’s still injured to see that the dead Ravens and the murderer are returned for burial and justice. Killing a man who’s come to sue for peace isn’t in Iryasitru’s best interests.”
“Before two weeks ago, I would have thought killing a Herald was something only in tales from long ago, like the great famines before the unification.”
That made her hesitate, if only for a moment. “I see your point. But, Kara . . . it’s been a very long time since the last Fox village fell. Iryasitru offered a truce during the Dragon-Phoenix conflict, and there was no time limit placed on it—and he hasn’t rescinded it. We can hope that the Raven’s lost his taste for Fox blood.”
“We shall see.” Still that harsh, unyielding expression remained, giving no hint at all of the youth’s true nature. “For Iryasitru’s sake, he’d better behave himself and act according to Hospitality. I’ve menaced a Prince in his own stronghold. A mere chieftain won’t be able to stop me.” He turned then, stalking silently back toward the trees.
“You’ve—!” She stared at his back a moment. “Kara, are you saying that you . . .” It was staggering to even contemplate; to give the idea voice was almost unthinkable. But she remembered very clearly just how unexpectedly eager Prince Baysitu had been to bring an end to the war.
He stopped for a moment, turning just enough to glance at the Swan over his shoulder. Beneath the faintly glowing amber eyes, the smile he gave her was blood-chilling. “What’s better? One life or all those lost on the battlefields?” Then he was gone, swiftly disappearing into the trees.
“Kara—” She reached out as if she could catch him even at that distance, but he was simply gone too quickly. She let her hand fall, looking into the shadows. “I’ll take care of him,” she promised, hoping that Kara could still hear her. “I’ve gotten him this far; I won’t abandon him now. If the Raven decides to violate hospitality and kill Arjuna, he’ll have to kill me too.” And if that happens, there will be war between Raven and Dragon. It was a somewhat cold-blooded notion, but it crossed Kerza’s mind that if her beloved perished at the Raven’s hand, the best way to ensure that justice was done would be to sacrifice her own life. It was possible—extremely remote, but possible—that Divaksina’s advisors might persuade her to let Arjuna’s death pass without comment. There wasn’t a force on earth, short of the Empress or possibly the Goddess Herself, that would be able to quell Diva’s rage if Kerza died as well.
Part of the Swan shuddered at the thought. Losing Arjuna would be a pain beyond any mortal agony, but to deliberately follow him into death would be a violation of the bond that existed between herself and the young Dragon.
Her mind whirling with the dark, somber thoughts, she walked slowly back to the camp and clambered up into the palanquin, opening and closing the door as softly as possible. Arjuna was still sleeping, his head turned to one side on the pillow and haloed in his pale hair, one hand lying palm-up beside his face. Looking down at him, Kerza’s eyes clouded over. This man was everything she desired; no one she had ever met had had this effect on her. To know that he had never noticed her at all hurt, but spending these past two weeks so close to him, even sleeping within arm’s reach of him, had been a subtle and persistent torment. Knowing that he might die this day if the Raven’s fury could not be held in check by custom and law was enough to bring tears to her eyes.
Impulsively, she bent close and kissed his palm. I will be with you, as I have always been.
She was settling back into her covers when the quiet, deep voice froze her in place. “Kerza?”
“Yes, my lord?”
“Are you well?”
“Of course,” she said, filling her voice with false cheer. “It’s a bit early to tell, but I think it’s going to be a warm, clear day.” She hesitated a moment. “Are you certain that you wish to see this all the way through, my lord? The soldiers can easily take things from here, and we can be on our way back to Derkarya within a few hours.”
“After coming this far,” he answered. “I’m determined to see it through to the end. To do otherwise would make all the risk for nothing.”
“And you truly wish to seek peace with Iryasitru?”
“That’s a strange thing to ask.”
“I had a strange conversation. Karavasu is concerned for your safety.”
Arjuna lifted his head and stared at her. “Karavasu! Here?”
“He’s evidently been following us. He made himself known to me because he wanted to know exactly what you had in mind. He . . . seems worried that you might have other plans than the ones you’ve spoken of.”
Jade hued eyes stared at her; the Fox Chieftain’s confusion at her words was quite evident. “What ‘other plans’?”
“He seemed relieved when I told him that you intended to sue for peace, but he’s concerned that you might still decide to go out in a blaze of glory, striking at the very heart of the Kaykolom. He’s very worried about you, my lord.”
“Where is he?”
“Nearby, I believe. He does not wish to approach you right now, believing that you will disapprove of the new path he has chosen for himself.”
Arjuna began to lever himself up on his elbows, and hissed sharply as a warning bolt of pain shot through his side. Kerza was out of her blankets in an instant, kneeling beside him to help him sit upright without further stressing the still-healing muscles of his abdomen. “Easy, my lord!”
“What new path?” he demanded, catching hold of her wrist and looking directly into the sky-blue eyes that were only a few inches away. There was concern there, and something far deeper.
“He . . . finds himself no longer able to continue on as a killer. He seeks to find ways to turn the Fox sword art to non-lethal uses instead.”
“Non-lethal?” Arjuna echoed, incredulous. That makes no sense at all. “Swordsmanship is an art of war and killing. I knew the boy had undergone some major psychic trauma, but has he completely snapped?”
“He’s heard many times that a Fox’s sword is meant to protect others. He’s come to a decision that that doesn’t always mean someone has to die.” She hesitated a moment. “I believe that this reaction is the one he feared you would have,” she murmured, glancing down at his grasp on her wrist.
He followed her gaze, then abruptly let go of her, suddenly aware how hard his grip must be on her. Gently sighing, he leaned back, shaking his head slightly. “This isn’t disapproval so much as sheer astonishment. Even in war, someone doesn’t always die, but the whole of the art is to end a threat by rendering the one responsible for it incapable of acting on that threat. Yes, it often leads to such a permanent solution as the death of that person, but there are other times one will retreat without sword ever drawn.
“He sounds like he’s gone insane, striving to reach an ideal that just cannot exist in this world.”
“Without killing, he rendered Dashtru incapable of harming anyone more than he already had,” she pointed out quietly, easing him back down onto his blankets. “In the process, he essentially handed you Chaiya’s murderer to be taken before Raven justice. You know that if we were bringing six dead Kaykolom here for a burial, their deaths—including Chaiya’s—would have been blamed on you, no matter what the truth might be. People would claim that the Chief Herald had been traveling with five warriors for escort, and all of them were killed by the Silver Fox.” One gentle hand stroked a lock of his hair back from his face, a soothing touch that seemed over too quickly. “That would have been injustice, my lord. If Kara can achieve his ideal, so much the better. If he cannot, he will discover the flaws in his choice soon enough. He’s not a fool.”
“I’m worried about him,” Arjuna softly admitted. “Something happened on that last assignment of his, something that nearly broke his spirit entirely . . . and now he’s trying to achieve a swordsmanship that doesn’t kill?” The Lopayzom chieftain sighed, covering his eyes with a hand. Kerza was probably correct; had he had his way, then he probably would have been blamed for Chaiya’s murder. Yet, under it all, part of him didn’t think Iryasitru would ever believe Arjuna was capable of destroying someone who had meant so much once upon a time. Even so, whatever Kara had done, it had given both chieftains the opportunity to bring the long, bloody feud to some lasting end. “I fear he’s perhaps become a fool. And it would be all my fault.”
Her skilled hands had drawn the blankets down to his waist so that she could check his wounds over. The shallower cuts had healed quickly, showing now as faint pinkish lines that could only be seen by one who knew where to look, and even those had faded almost entirely, no longer needing bandages. The impaling wounds, however, still troubled him; the damaged muscles were mending and there was no sign yet that he would carry anything more lasting than a few scars, but too-swift movements or overexertion reminded him firmly that he had not yet fully recovered.
“Just as a parent cannot take full credit for everything their children become, they cannot take full blame, either. Perhaps he is afraid to face you right now because he knows you will disapprove, and he has not yet obtained proof that his new path will work.”
“I don’t disapprove as such,” he answered, very much aware of her careful touch as she loosened the bandages to inspect the belly wounds. “I’m worried about his mental state more than anything else.”
“Nevertheless, he has chosen to remain apart, if nearby. If he has been so badly shaken, the separation may help him regain his equilibrium.” She pressed gently on the skin near one set of stitches, pleased to see that there was no swelling or inflammation to be seen. “Does this cause you pain, my lord, or are you only feeling discomfort deeper in?”
“It’s only sore deep within,” Arjuna murmured, though his words seemed to hold a dual meaning. He’d risked much taking this journey in the hopes of setting many things straight; that his adopted son would remain an unsolved problem saddened the Lopayzom Chieftain. I’ve done ill by him for most of his life. In the end, I can’t blame him for being hesitant and uncertain about my own motives—I can only blame myself. Suddenly overwhelmed by a need to get this over with, Arjuna frowned and impatiently waved Kerza’s hands away. “The Rookery is only an hour away. Let’s get going. The only way to see how this ends is to do it.” He then struggled upward to a sitting position, ignoring the twinges of still-healing muscle.
“My lord—” She got her hands behind him to help him up, frowning a little in consternation. “You may do yourself more harm by rushing. The soldiers have set up a makeshift bathhouse outside—I thought it more appropriate for us to clean up and present a proper appearance at the Rookery.”
“Fine, then,” Arjuna said tersely. He pushed himself across the palanquin’s width—in all honesty, he was getting sick of seeing its interior; the thought of the return trip in it was disheartening—and tugged open the door. A cold, clear autumn morning greeted him; taking a deep breath of the crisp air, he exited the vehicle.
Their warrior escort were already cleaned up and looking quite presentable. Gathered around a heatstone upon which breakfast was cooking, the Dragon warriors were lounging casually but clearly on the alert for trouble. The moment Arjuna stepped out, they all came to attention and saluted.
The Lopayzom nodded in return. “At ease, men,” he ordered. “Once I’m cleaned up and have eaten, we’ll be on our way.”
“Sir . . .” Lieutenant Aisiku began, his youthful visage betraying his concern, “are you certain about this? I really don’t like the idea of you going into the very stronghold of your sworn enemies . . .”
“I’m certain, Lieutenant,” Arjuna replied. “There needs to be an absolute ending to this senseless bloodshed. That His Grace the Raven has seemed reluctant to resume the hunt now that the border war between Aizhou and Derkarya is over gives me hope that I won’t be cut down on sight.”
“I’d rather you let us go first and sound them out rather than walk into the Raven’s talons first thing, Sir.”
The silver-haired general smiled as he walked over to the temporary bathhouse. “I understand, Lieutenant. I assure you, I’m not going to rush in. I have no intention of dying.” Pulling aside the curtain, Arjuna stepped inside the small shelter, certain Kerza would be along momentarily with his clothes.
Within moments he was stripped bare and soaping up. Though the two very deep wounds twinged here and there as he moved, overall he was more or less recovered from his near brush with death. Sikitu’s words remained with him: “As goes the Chieftain, so goes the clan.”
I want to live now. I want Kara to live and be happy as well. Well aware of the continuing silence in the back of his consciousness where some mental connection to his adopted son should be, Arjuna could only softly sigh at the continuing rejection. Not that I don’t deserve it. I certainly haven’t been the best of fathers, not when what I really wanted was a tool to wreak even greater revenge at the end. The elegant general grabbed a bucket of warmed water and doused himself over the head with it. Bending over, he began soaping up his long mane of water-slicked silver hair. I can’t blame him for wanting to run away from that. I just wish he’d come talk to me—explain to me what happened and why he’s trying this, and let me explain I don’t want the Fox to fade into history now.
But the closed-off connection remained shut. All Arjuna could sense was what he always could: a forced attempt at well-being trying to hide a still deeply-wounded soul. Once again Arjuna could only come to the conclusion that on that last mission, Kara’s orders being in conflict with Kara’s lessons about the Fox Sword-Art had caused an emotional crisis that had been devastating. Would knowing that the orders have now been changed because of what you’d gone through make things somehow better? I doubt it. You always were intensely passionate, though you didn’t always outwardly show it.
Perhaps . . . If I can achieve this, maybe you’ll realize all I want for both of us now is to enjoy the life that remains. No more death, Kara . . . and if you truly wish to no longer kill regardless the circumstance, I can understand—and I certainly wouldn’t continue to ask such from you.
With a long sigh, he paused in scrubbing the liquid bath soap through his long mane. Unbidden, a tear fell along his cheek; aware of the suds on his hands, he turned his head and lifted his arm, using the skin of the point of his shoulder to wipe the tear off his face.
“Straighten up, my lord,” Kerza’s soft voice murmured just behind him, and she gently pushed his hands down, taking over the task of lathering his hair.
“I can do it myself,” he said as he straightened, knowing that it sounded just a bit childish.
“Yes, but why put the extra strain on your wounds when there’s someone here to help?” Her slender fingers worked through his hair, a soothing near-caress. “Really, my lord, you do insist on being a difficult patient at times.”
“I have no desire to behave as an invalid any longer than I must,” he grumbled.
“Quite understandable, but you are not the one to judge the progress of your recovery,” she said crisply. “I am the physician here, my lord, and I shall be the one to set your pace.” It was the most direct language he’d ever heard Kerza use to anyone who wasn’t a servant.