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sklandor

The Gryphon's Game: Chapter Nine (full and edited)

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Jan. 20th, 2006 | 03:28 pm
music: Ben Lee- No Right Angles
posted by: sanitysloss in sklandor

This is Chapter Nine, both sections. The main reason I'm reposting this is due to some editing and a complete rewrite of Gareth's rape scene.

Warning: Mature Content



Chapter Nine

The gaiety and merriment of the festival during the day paled to comparison to the gaiety and merriment caused by the warriors at night. The numerous drinking establishments were already filled with warriors, partying and reveling. Several fights had already broken out, some caused by young warriors attending the festival for the first time and already too drunk and excited for their own good, others by people wanting to cause a bit of excitement.

Aside from serving for a way for warriors to socialize and forget about their troubles and warriors, the drinking parties also served as a good way to find information on rivals as people were more likely to reveal weaknesses and other things that could be exploited after they had a few drinks in them. It also served as a way for people to say goodbyes and live their final days. Not even the commanders knew if they would live to see the end of the festival, so it was best to live while there was still life.

It was also a chance to see the commanders. It was a well known fact the commanders always gathered for a few drinks and to share the latest news. For new soldiers who wanted to a chance to meet the legendary commanders, it was the perfect opportunity. It was also the perfect opportunity to hear the latest news.

Except the commanders was nowhere to be found. Soldiers scoured the taverns, seeking out the six men and women that formed the head of the armies.

In the slums of Asruli, where few dared to venture, three men sat at a table in the back of a dingy tavern. Mildew and mold clung to the walls and ceiling as dark stains covered the rotting wood floor. Aside from the bartender, a rough looking man with a patch over one eye and a grin that revealed rotting and broken teeth, the other patrons were thieves and prostitutes.

One would hardly think the group sitting in the back of the room was people of importance. One man was too old, his hair and short beard silver from age and wrinkles creasing his grizzled face. Another man was muscular, but his round face and wide-eyed expression made him look more like a boy in a man's body. The third was a middle-aged man flirting outrageously and unashamedly with the two whores sitting on his lap. It was hard to believe these were the commanders of the Tenbnea, Kanjadu, and Aquila tribe.

But then, it also made sense. It was assumed the commanders would be conversing in the taverns in the heart of town where it was safe and food and drink was aplenty, not in the slums where one would be fortunate to get a drink that wasn't laced with poison or some other foul liquid. But by talking in the slums, they were able to escape the large crowds and attention and speak freely.

“I tell you, this is the life,” Jeyer said, a large grin on his face as he exchanged kisses with both women as they lifted a glass for him to drink from. “Good drinks, good food, an' great women.”

Alek gave a small snort as he drank from his cup, scowling at the liquid in his cup that was supposed to be ale but swallowing it anyway. The 'good food' had been moldy bread they had wisely decided to leave alone and the women...

The old commander shuddered as he looked at the women his friend had picked. There were times when he wondered about the tastes of the Aquila commander. “Beh, ah prefer a good woman with substance an’ spirit, someone that can take care of herself.”

“Ah, then one of the lovely female commanders,” Jeyer said with a grin. Alek simply shrugged. The Aquila commander winked at the older commander. “Of the three, which do you want warmin' your bed?”

Alek gave a low chuckle. It wasn't the first time Jeyer had asked that question. While he would never lay a hand on any of the female commanders-- they were their sisters-in-arms and highly respected-- their beauty hadn't escaped him. He gave his friend the same answer he always did.

“Aerin is already married, an' happily so ah might add, Nokane has no interest in men an' never will, an' ah've never met Zidah. Besides, ah'm old enough t' be Aerin's father an' Zidah's grandfather.”

“Since when did age or marital status matter?” Jeyer asked with a careless shrug. “Now, as for myself, I wouldn't mind all three, but I'm not greedy. Aerin is a lovely woman, slender an' quite spirited, though as you say, she's already married which poses a problem. Zidah, haven't seen her yet, but I hear she's a real beauty. Enrico, you've seen her. She as pretty as everyone says she is?”

The newest commander, Enrico Rasla, looked up. He was a young commander-- both Alek and Nokane had served as commanders longer than the Kanjadu man had been alive-- and lacked some of the experience the other commanders had. A few speculated he was only commander because his mother was the ruler of the Kanjadu tribe.

“Well, she's pretty I suppose. Not the nicest person though,” he replied, a little shyly.

Jeyer laughed and punched the man on the shoulder. “Ahh, you're a good man. Anyway, as for the others, Nokane is a little short for me, but she has those womanly curves an' y' know what they say about red heads.”

“Oh? An' what do they say about red heads?”

Jeyer looked up in surprise as the Sandari commander sat down at the table. She had heard the majority of the conversation and it had amused her. She was used to hearing such conversations and took it all in stride. A few of the other patrons were looking at her with interest, snickering to their companions as they winked and whistled at her.

Nokane leaned back in her chair as she looked across at the Aquila commander, ignoring the catcalls. “Ah'm still waitin' fer an answer.”

“Perhaps we can discuss that later in private,” he replied, giving her a roguish wink as he waved off the women next to him. They pouted at him, but left, giggling as they looked for other men to turn their attentions to.

A drink was ordered for the red-haired commander and she took it, pulling a sour face as she drank from her mug. “Blegh, what is this sludge?”

“You'd be better of not knowin' what it is. But glad y could make it. Where's Aerin and Zidah?”

“Aerin's finishin' up some business an' ah don't know where Zidah is. Thought she'd be here already,” she looked across at the young Kanjadu man and raised her glass at him. “So y' must be Enrico. Welcome.”

Enrico stood up and gave her a formal bow. “Commander Asrulda-”

Nokane motioned for the man to sit down. “Just Nokane. No formalities needed among friends.”

The man blushed as he quickly sat down. “Very well, N-Nokane. I thank you for your kind welcome. I am honored to be among such accomplished an' talented warriors.”

“Yer own accomplishments will come in time, an' if y' did not have yer own talents, y' wouldn't be here drinkin' with us.”

“That's the truth,” Jeyer said as he casually threw an arm over the Kanjadu man's shoulder. “So, how are we going to initiate this fine lad?”

“Initiate?” Enrico asked. Some of the older soldiers in the army had hinted at initiation rituals performed by the commanders, but only winked and smiled at him when he pressed for more information.

“Aye, initiations, like the other countless initiations I'm sure you've gone through in your military career.”

“Oh. What do I have to do?”

Alek set down his mug as he stroked his chin thoughtfully. The other two commanders were hiding smiles behind their own mugs as Enrico waited for the commander's reply. “Nothin' too horrible. We'll just ask y' some questions an' y' just answer as truthfully as y' can.”

Enrico relaxed slightly and gave a small smile. Questions weren't too horrible. “Oh, okay. Anythin' else?”

“Then we strip y' of yer clothin' an' we take turns hittin' y' with our blades.”

The commander paled and gave a nervous laugh. He looked at the three commanders, hoping to find some hint that they were joking, but he found nothing.

“Oh, nice to see you guys didn't start without me,” a familiar voice said as Aerin set her sword on the table with a loud bang. Enrico jumped as the other three commanders burst into laughter. The Hirykui commander stared at them, looking first at Enrico, then the other commanders, then back to Enrico. She chuckled as she sat down. “So, what lies did they feed you now?”

Relieved to hear it was all a joke, Enrico gave another nervous laugh as he took a sip from his mug. “Oh, just told me the four of you would ask me some questions then strip me naked and beat me. Great joke, I'll admit I completely fell for it...”

He trailed off as he looked at the serious expression on Aerin's face. The Hirykui woman leered at him, her smile turning into a twisted grin. “Who said we were jokin'?”

He paled. His eyes trailed down to Aerin's sword and for a moment he considered leaving the tavern and turning his back on such sadistic warriors But he wanted the respect of the other commanders and if it involved going though a savage beating, then so be it. He reassured himself with the fact it couldn't be as some of the beatings he had received during his service as soldier in the Kanjadu army.

Standing up, he took a deep breath as he picked up Aerin's sword and held it out to her, trying to control his shaking. “Very well. Shall we begin then?”

Aerin took her sword as she stood up, the other commanders following. They walked out of the back door and into the alley behind the tavern. A drunken man looked up at them curiously, leering at the two women as he walked toward them, but quickly backed away and fled as Aerin drew her sword.

“It's a little cold tonight, so just take off your tunic,” Aerin instructed as Enrico dutifully stripped off his tunic and handed it over to Nokane. “Now turn around an' spread out your arms. Jeyer, Alek, you hold onto him. Wouldn't want him fallin' over or anythin'.”

Enrico shivered from the cold air as he turned around and held out his arms. Alek and Jeyer grinned at each other as they grabbed the young man's arms and held them tightly.

There was a faint swish as Aerin swung her blade through the air and he prepared himself for the first blow. Instead, he felt a faint touch of cold metal against his back followed by two more gentle taps before he was released. He stood there, his arms out before quickly turning around, pure disbelief and slight indignation on his face. “That's it? After everything that was it?”

Aerin gave a small smile as she sheathed her sword. “That's it. Come back inside an' we'll explain everythin'.”

With Enrico dressed once more, they reentered the tavern and sat down at the table. Aerin set her sword back on the table as she leaned back in her chair. “I know you're angry an' we don't blame you. I was pissed as hell after my initiation an' I know Jeyer tried to hit Alek after his. But think about this from our perspective:
“You're a new commander an' none of us know you. The initiation process has been a long tradition starting from long before we were commanders. It's our way to see what kind of a person you are an' how you'll react under pressure.”

Enrico drank from his mug. While he was angered at the fact the commanders had fooled him so easily, but he understood the purpose behind the test. “So did I pass?”

“Of all the times I’ve done that test, an’ I do that test with my own soldiers, you're the first to pick up my sword an' hand it over to me, so you gained a few points with me there. As for passin', well, you're not completely finished,” she chuckled at Enrico's worried look. “Don't worry, now we’re just goin’ to ask some questions.”

“Character questions, if you will,” Jeyer said as he propped his feet up on the table and leaned back in his chair. “Oone from the each of us. Mind if I ask mine now?” Enrico motioned for him to go ahead.

“How do you wish to die?”

It was not the question Enrico was expecting. He was sure it would have been something about his loyalty or why he wished to become a commander, but his death? “How I wish to die...?” he repeated as the Aquila commander nodded in confirmation.

He searched his mind for an answer. As a soldier and now commander, he was no stranger to death. He had cut people down and seen friends and fellow soldiers slain in battle.

His mind went to the commander that had served the Kanjadu tribe before him. Commander Ajax Tiristal had been captured by enemy forces and tortured to death. His last days on the earth had been filled with agony and anguish, but not once did he betray his tribe by giving up important information. It was an honorable death and one that made him a legend in the Kanjadu tribe.

But such a death was not what Enrico wanted. While he was willing to die for his tribe and never surrender valuable information to his enemies, he couldn't envision dying in such a glorious fashion.

“I... I don't know. I want to die with dignity, that I know, but I'm sorry, I don't know how I would want to die,” Enrico finally said quietly.

“No need to be apologetic. It's not an easy question,” Jeyer replied, setting his feet on the ground. “Think on it some more, there's no rush.”

“But enough business fer now,” Alek replied as he drew out a deck of playing cards and began to shuffle it. “A shame Zidah isn't here as we could get her initiation over with, but the night is still young.”

The cards were dealt out as they began their game. It was hard to believe the same people sitting around the table and happily drinking and playing cards would be fighting each other in the arena, willingly spilling each other's blood in the days to come.

But such cruel twists in life were no longer surprising. After all, were they not the commanders of each tribe, destined to fight each other if war broke out? All of them, save Enrico who had only fought in battle as a soldier instead of a commander, bore battle scars caused by each other.

But there was no bitterness between them. They all understood it was a part of their duty and while they would also fight to save each other, they would also fight to destroy each other if needed.

Alek discarded a few cards and drew ones as he looked across at Aerin. “How are yer daughters doin'? Will we be seein' a new commander an' ruler soon?”

“Not for awhile. Teriana is still too young an' has plenty to learn an' Aidia, well, she still has a long way to go. How would you feel about trainin' her?”

“Ah thought Nokane was trainin' yer daughter,” Alek said, his brow furrowing as he looked at the Sandari commander.

Nokane grimaced as she looked at her cards, throwing away three cards and drawing three new ones. “Ah am, but ah think she'd be better suited for the Tenbnea army. Hopeless as a swordsman, but shows promise as a spearman. “

“Ah have no objections t' trainin' her. It'd be a great honor. When would y' want me t' begin?” Alek made a dismissive sound as he threw his cards onto the table. “Ah fold.”

“I'll have to talk to her about it. Problem is she hasn't realized her flaws just yet.”

Aerin glanced at her cards, content with what she had. Nokane grimaced again as she threw aside her cards and sat back. Jeyer smiled as he flipped his cards over, revealing two kings, though his smile faded when Aerin revealed two aces. The Kanjadu commander gave a shy smile as he flipped over his cards, revealing three eights.

“Lucky bastard,” Jeyer grumbled good-naturedly as he picked up the cards and began to shuffle, dealing them back out. They conversed as they played, sharing the latest news and gossip while recalling past memories and events.

When the past memories and events trailed into stories about battles and soldiers, Enrico was shocked to hear how easily and flippantly the other warriors could talk about battles and gruesome deaths and even laugh about the people. It enranged him to hear the people he respected talk about the dead in such a manner.

“How can you share such stories so easily? These are people dying out there, not sacks of sand that can be refilled and sewn back together. How can you disrespect them so?” Enrico said as Alek finished sharing a story about seeing one of his soldiers die by falling out of a tree.

The commander's laughter subsided as they all turned to look at the Kanjadu commander. They knew the man was not shy to the idea of killing and knew what becoming a commander would entail. But they pitied him. He was still pure compared to them and that purity would be robbed from him viciously and quickly.

It was Alek who spoke first. He set down his mug and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands in his lap. “Ever kill someone before? Feel yer blade plunge into them an' see that look of shock an' horror on their face as they realize they're goin' t' die? See the final look of pain cross their face as y' pull yer blade back out, their warm blood spillin' onto y'?”

A pained look crossed Enrico's face and he gave a quick nod as he looked away. The old commander gave a small nod. “Then y' understand how y' never forget it, how it stays with y'. We're commanders, Enrico. Death-bringers, Ossani's, servants, angels of death, blood soldiers, call us whatever y’d like. Y' will see things that will scar y' fer life, things y' will never ferget no matter how hard y' try, things that will wake y' up in the middle of the night, screamin'.”
“Those stories... they aren't meant to disrespect the dead: it's our way of rememberin' our friends fer the way they were. We're only sharin' those stories because we know they'd be laughin' along with us if they could. It's also a copin' mechanism. If y' can't find things t' laugh about, y'll go insane, an' a crazed commander is the most dangerous thing out there.”

“Have you ever met a crazed commander?” Enrico asked carefully.

Alek closed his eyes and let a dry smile cross his face. “Once. He had snapped after a mission... they had been captured by enemy forces and they’d tortured him an’ executed his soldiers before releasin’ him. They found him lyin' in a pile of bodies, covered in blood an’ gore from both him an’ the bodies. Thought he was dead when they found him, but the scream he gave when they moved him, talk to the soldiers that were there an’ they say it was the most ghastly an’ heartbreakin’ thing y’d ever hear. No man should ever scream like that...
“They took him back t' the castle an' treated him the best they could, but there was somethin' different about him. Torture an’ seein’ his soldiers be killed in front of him had cracked him. He would walk around, mumblin' an' cursin' t' himself. Sometimes he would wedge himself into wardrobes an' closets, anythin' dark an' small, an' scream obscenities at people. Had t' keep him strapped down t' his bed an' subdued with spells.
“Then one night, he broke his bonds an' grabbed a knife. Must have thought he was captured again. Slew two healers an' some of the other poor souls in the infirmary before fleein' the room. When they got t' him, they had to break his arms an’ legs t' prevent him from killin' himself. Locked him up in prison. Fer days, y' could hear him screamin' an' rattlin' the bars before he went quiet. When they checked on him they found him dead in his cell. Beat his head against the wall until he died.”

The Tenbnea man opened his eyes and looked at Enrico, his voice cracking as tears streamed down his grizzled face. “That man was Commander Dario Esteban, my father. So y' see, if we can't find things t' laugh about, we'll fall apart. Y' understand me?”

“Yes, Sir,” Enrico said weakly. Even though the event had happened many years ago, it was obvious the event still troubled the Tenbnea commander. Enrico wondered what other events haunted him and the other commanders and what he would see in his own future. “Sir, if I may ask, why did you choose to be a commander?”

“Would a farmer remain a peasant if he knew he could be a king?”

The other commanders turned to look at the person who spoke. It was a tall woman with very angular features and long black hair pulled back in a series of braids. Runic symbols had been tattooed onto the back of her hands and down her neck. She looked out of place with bracelets and rings on her wrists and hands and dressed in a long robe and a cloak bearing the crest of the Kanjaru tribe. There was no doubt she made a tempting target for robbers.

The Kanjadu commander stiffened up slightly as he looked at the woman, his eyes narrowing slightly. “Helali eraka, Commander Morban. Have you been here long?”

The other commanders looked at the woman with interest. So this was Zidah Morban, the commander of the Kanjaru tribe. So the rumors were true; the sixth commander was a mage.

“Long enough,” she replied as she looked over each commander, smirking slightly at their simple tunics and breeches.

“Well, don't just stand there. Sit down an' share a few drinks with us,” Aerin offered, motioning toward the empty chair to her right. There was something she didn't like about the woman-- Zidah reminded her far too much of some of the condescending mages she had met in the past—but she was a commander and Aerin would respect her and accept her as a sister-in-arms.

Zidah looked dubiously at the Hirykui commander, but sat down. A mug was set down in front of her, filled with the cheap beer the others were drinking. She scowled at it as she picked it up, sloshing the contents around in the cup. “This foul sludge isn’t fit for pigs. I don’t see how you can sit around and drink it so easily.”

Jeyer looked down his cup and swigged down the contents. “This is fine Hirykui wine compared to some of the other stuff I’ve drunk, but we are not here to discuss the quality of our beverages. What did you mean by your comment?’

She smirked condescendingly at him. “I thought such an easy comment would be easy to understand, but perhaps it may be too much for such simple-minded people. Very well, I shall translate then. We are commanders because of the power and prestige involved. Why settle being a starving warrior or a common soldier when we could be commanders?”

“Perhaps y' are the simple-minded one if y' believe power an' prestige are the only reasons why we are commanders,” Nokane replied, setting down her mug. “Aye, the power can be useful, but ah'm a commander because ah want t' defend the Sandari tribe an' uphold its beliefs.”

“An' ah'm a commander because of my love for the Tenbnea tribe an’ my father. My father, may his troubled soul rest in peace, was a good man, but people were willin’ t’ forget his good deeds an’ only remember his final days. Many people wanted my mother an’ ah exiled from Ankara fer his crimes, but Mela Nouma pardoned us an’ allowed us t’ live in peace an’ safety. Ah promised ah would become commander an' serve an' protect him to repay him for his kindness as well as defendin’ the Tenbnea tribe. It is my loyalty to Mela Nouma that made me become a commander, not the desire fer power an' prestige.”

Zidah scoffed at Alek's explanation. “Such unwavering loyalty to your ruler, how foolish.”

Alek set down his mug with a loud bang. The young Kanjaru commander was beginning to wear on his nerves. Such childish insults and rudeness were things he expected from younger recruits, not from a commander.

“An' tell me, Commander Morban, why would it be foolish fer me t' be loyal t' my ruler?”

“Your blind loyalty will lead you to your death. How do you not know your ruler is plotting something behind you, how do you know he's not planning your demise?”

“Trust,” Aerin said. “How do the rulers know we're not plottin' against them? How do they know we are not plannin' their demise? We control the army an' could start a revolution if we so wished, but we wouldn't. Why? Because how could we destroy our husbands, fathers, mothers, or close friends?”

“Your trust is admirable, but one should not trust another just because they're bed partners or family. The past has shown betrayal happens most between lovers and family.”

Aerin shrugged and raised her glass in Zidah's direction. “Quite true, but I will risk a knife in my bank as I sleep an' continue to loyally serve my tribe an' my husband.”

“Aerin is correct,” Enrico said, nodding in agreement with the Hirykui commander and ignoring Zidah’s venomous glare. He raised his glass and gently tapped it against Aerin’s. “We have no reason to not trust the rulers. They are family, lovers, friends, and they need us just as we need them. We control the army, they control everything else, and somehow, we find balance in everything. I too choose to be a fool and risk a knife in the back.”

“While I bear no fond feelin's toward the dear Maila Tonari, I have my reasons for servin' the Aquila tribe an' I will see the tribe to the end,” Jeyer said as he raised his glass, Nokane and Alek following suit. Zidah only rolled her eyes at them, muttering something about 'fools flocking together' under her breath.

“Now that we're all here, the toastin' can begin,” Jeyer said as he winked at the women. “Here's to the fine women across from me, may they always remain beautiful an' skilled with the weapon of their choice.”

“An' here's t' the men, may they remain handsome an' skilled with the weapon of their choice... though in the case of Jeyer, may his blade become dull an' useless,” Nokane returned as everyone, including Zidah who allowed a small chuckle escape her lips, laughed.

They continued to toast each other, poking fun at each other as they said their blessings and well-wishes, ending with Aerin's toast of “to the rulers, may they rule with wisdom an' live in health, an' to the poor fools who continue to serve them. Alashayo!” followed by a resounding cheer of “Alashayo!” from the other commanders.

The story-telling and drinking continued on through the night. Even Zidah volunteered a few of her stories and took a few sips of the 'foul sludge', though her condescending attitude never changed.

“Well, seems like it's a fine time t' do some initiatin',” Nokane said as she pushed away her mug and winked at Enrico.

Zidah looked over at the Sandari commander, one eyebrow raised. “Initiations?”

“Just a simple tradition new commanders have to go through an' all that,” Jeyer said, leaning forward on the table.

“And what do I have to do?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest and giving Jeyer a withering look.

Jeyer grinned as he nodded toward Nokane. The Sandari commander gave a cold smile. “Well, we're goin' t' take y' t' the top of the tavern, then blindfold y' an' push y' off the edge. Y' just do yer best job t' land on yer feet.”

“I won't do it. I refuse to participate in such childish games,” Zidah spat out, an appalled look on her face.

Enrico gave a small shrug. “You really don't have a choice. I had to be initiated too.”

She gave the Kanjadu commander a withering look as she shook her head. “I said I won't do it. I will not participate in such childish games.”

And with that, she stood up and stormed out of the tavern, the door slamming behind her.

Alek watched her go before picking up his mug. “Well, at least we know what kind of commander she is.”

*****

While the commanders gathered for drinks as friends, the relationship between the six rulers was far from friendly. Aside from a few close relationships between select rulers, the friendliness between the rulers was strictly political. So when the rulers were invited by Maila Tonari for a small private dinner, they looked at it with apprehension, but accepted. After all, it would be rude to refuse an invitation when one was staying in the host's home.

Four of the rulers, Mela Gareth, Mela Juran, Maila Kinara Rasla, and Maila Isberi Criet, were assembled in one of the private dining rooms, the servants quietly refilling their glasses of wine as they waited for their hostess and the Tenbnea ruler to arrive. Conversation was quiet and limited, reduced to trite compliments and comments on the décor and recent events.

It was Mela Nouma who arrived first. News of his health was known by all the rulers and the other rulers had doubted his ability to attend the festival. But his ship had been seen at the docks and his servants around the castle. But when he walked through the doors, everyone stood up and gaped in surprise.

While he still looked quite frail and sickly, he was on his feet, walking along with the aid of a cane and Lieries at his side. He smiled at the other rulers, his wide grin revealing several missing teeth as he gave a piercing laugh.

“What are all of you staring at?” he asked, waving his cane at the other rulers as he smiled at them, a hint of insanity in his voice and a strange leer in his eyes.

“We are just surprise to see you and in such good... health,” Gareth said as he stepped forward to aid his father.

Nouma peered at his son as he leaned on his cane. When the Hirykui ruler was close, he reached out and grabbed his hand, gently patting it. “Ahh, my dear son, what a pleasure to see you. Your departure was so sudden and so surprising, how I wish I could have talked to you more.”

Gareth frowned slightly. It appeared Nouma had forgotten the cruel words he had said. While Gareth was still bitter over the words and expected an apology, he saw no reason in bringing it up now. “Yes, well, I had business to attend to. Why don't you sit down now?”

“Yes, of course, of course,” Lieries stepped forward to help his master, but the old ruler smiled at the young man. “Oh, do not worry, my son can help me.”

He let Gareth take his hand and lead him to his seat, Lieries' scowl going unnoticed as the Sandari servant followed behind him. Carefully sinking into his seat, Nouma smiled at the other rulers as Gareth returned to his seat. The other rulers returned the smile, though a bit nervously.

“Where is Maila Tonari? It seems odd one would be late to their own dinner,” Maila Isberi Criet remarked. As the newest ruler, it was not surprising for her to be unfamiliar with the ways of the Aquila ruler.

“It would be odd for Tonari to arrive on time for her own party, my dear,” Juran replied, obvious disdain in his voice. “She believes in the virtues of being fashionably late.”

The doors swung open as the Aquila ruler strolled in. She was dressed in an extravagant dress, a long trail of silk flowing behind her, and diamonds and sapphires adorned her fingers, neck, and wrists. She smiled as she took her place at the head of the table, a servant quickly rushing over to fill her glass.

“You must forgive me for my tardiness, I had business to attend to,” she said as she smiled at the other rulers. “I am pleased all of you could attend this dinner under such short notice. But enough talk, let us begin.”

The Aquila ruler clapped her hands as the servants approached, setting food on the table. At one end of the table sat Tonari while Gareth sat on the other and Juran and Kinara on one side and Isberi and Nouma on the other.

When drinks were poured for everyone, Tonari raised her glass in the air. “To our health, to our people, and to our present and future successes. Alashayo.”

The reply of Alashayo was quiet as the rulers sipped from their glass before beginning to eat. For a few minutes, there was only the sound of silverware clinking against porcelain and the sound of chewing as the rulers waited for someone to begin the conversation.

It was Nouma who finally broke the silence with his grating laugh, the other rulers wincing at the sound. There was a half-crazed expression on the man's face as he peered around at all the rulers. Along with his health, what else had slipped from the Tenbnea man? “Ahh, it has been so long since we have last gathered,” he cackled as he drank from his wine glass, the red liquid slopping down his beard.

Juran looked over at the old ruler, wondering if it was safe for him to drink in his condition. “Nouma, perhaps it would be unwise for you to drink--”

“Bah, I am perfectly fine,” he replied as he set the glass down. “Tell me, Juran, how is I am frail and ailing while you are still young and healthy? And you, Kinara, how do you remain so beautiful?”

“Your kind words honor me, Nouma, but beauty escaped me long ago,” Kinara replied, dabbing her lips with a napkin. She was a woman with a large frame and dressed very simply. She wore a plain green dress with a green cloak lined with silver fur. A simple bone-carved necklace adored her neck. Her graying brown hair was pulled back into a simple braid, the only decoration a silver clip with the Kanjadu crest on it. She wore no makeup to hide the winkles on her face and the bags under her eyes, but the natural blush in her cheeks, her round face, and her large brown eyes made her look much younger than she was.

“Beauty will never escape you, Kinara,” Juran said quickly and making no effort to hide the affection in his voice. Kinara looked at him and gave him a thankful smile before lowering her eyes down her plate.

The other rulers looked at them in surprise, wondering how deep the relationship went. Isberi laughed, raising one slender hand to cover her mouth. It was light and lilting, but there seemed to be an underlying tone of cruelty. She was a slender woman with long blonde hair and dark blue eyes and bore a remarkable similarity to Tonari in appearance. She was dressed in a long dark green gown with a white cloak flowing down her back. Emeralds were strung through her hair and jewelry sparkled from her wrists and fingers. Runic symbols were also tattooed onto her hands and neck.

She lowered her hand, flexing and admiring the rings on her hand as she glanced at the woman across from her. “Nice to know you've been keeping yourself occupied. You always had interesting tastes in men.”

Kinara flushed red and her brown eyes narrowed, but she said nothing and busied herself with cutting the piece of chicken on her plate.

Isberi gave a small smile. “It’s a shame none of them every stay around long enough. What was his name... Kerton... Keldon...”

The chicken on Kinara's plate was reduced to a pile of thin strips. She set down her knife and fork and looked across at Isberi, trying her best to hide her anger. “Keldran. His name was Keldran.”

“Ahh, yes, Keldran, of course. A fine man. A shame he came to such an unfortunate end.”

Kinara clasped her hands together and forced a smile onto her face. “Yes, a true shame. He will be missed by many.”

Isberi’s smile grew, continuing to aggravate the other ruler more. At this moment, the sensible thing for the other rulers to do would have been to step in and stop the two women before a fight began, but the conversation was just far too interesting to stop. “I'm sure, though at least he stayed around long enough to provide you with a son. A fine lad I hear, though quite timid and nothing like the last commander. Tell me, do you think it's wise to let such a boy be commander?”

“Enrico is a fine man and he will be fine as commander.”

“If you insist, though to have such a boy--”

“Enrico is a man and if I do recall, older and more experienced as a warrior than Commander Morban,” Kinara snapped.

The Kanjadu forest ruler gave another laugh as she reached for her wine glass and sipped from it. “More experienced you say? Very well, then we shall see who remains victorious when they fight. But my dear, dear sister, you shouldn't be so hostile toward me, especially at such a fine occasion.”

Kinara said nothing, but merely glared across at the woman. It was true they were sisters and both Kanjadus, but all similarities ended there.

The sudden split in the Kanjadu tribe into two different groups had been something that came as a surprise to all the other tribes, but not to those involved. It had been an internal conflict that had been growing until it finally erupted in war and the formation of the Kanjaru tribe, led by Maila Isberi Criet and her commander, Zidah Morban.

It was said the tribe was simply split over a simple disagreement in the state of the tribe and the direction it was headed in, but the hostile way the two rulers acted toward each other and the years of wars that had gone on between the tribe proved there was a much deeper reason between the sudden change.

The situation had been awkward for the other tribes. They were hesitant to accept the new tribe, especially when the reason behind the division was kept secret to all, but as war between the two tribes continued and threatened to spill into the other tribes, the decision to accept the Kanjaru tribe as a separate tribe from the Kanjadu tribe was reached.

“Aye, dear sister,” Kinara replied, now making no effort to hide her anger, “but you should also be more respectful to your elders. Do not forget I am still your older sister.”

Isberi gave a cold laugh. “Oh, but dear sister, you have no power over me. You may be the older child, but remember; I was the one blessed by Ekoti.”

Something snapped in the older woman. Kinara stood up, her chair clattering against the ground. Juran quickly reached up to take her arm and whispered for her to sit down, but she brushed his hand away as she glared across at her sister. “You were blessed by nothing, you wretched, spoiled, deceiving child.”

Isberi causally looked up at her sister and she raised her hand in the air as if she was admiring her rings once more. “My, my, temper, temper. I can see why Kalraka left you for our dear younger sister. Much better tempered than you and far more attractive.”

Kinara gave a shriek of rage as she raised her hands, quickly casting a spell as Isberi cast her own. Three sharp stone shards flew toward Isberi as vines, extending from the rings on Isberi's hands, shot toward Kinara.

Before each other's spells could hurt each other, Tonari, Gareth, and Juran cast their own spells. Juran threw two shields up in front of the women, protecting them from any harm while Tonari turned the vines and stone shards into ice. Gareth's own spell sliced through the ice pieces, the separate halves dropping to the table and melting into harmless puddles of water.

Nouma's laughter broke the silence that followed and everyone turned to face the old man who was laughing and clapping with glee while his servant tried to calm him down.

Tonari brushed back a strand of hair and glared at both women. Kinara sat down, shamed by her burst of anger while Isberi sat down and turned to polishing her rings. Looking at all the rulers, the Aquila woman clapped her hands together and smiled. “Well, that was quite entertaining. Now, who would like desert?”

After the fight between Kinara and Isberi, the rest of the dinner was relatively peaceful, the conversation limited to politics and other world events. It was boring, but it passed the time.

“Tell me, do you really think its wise to have the commanders out drinking like fools?” Isberi suddenly asked as she played with one of her rings.

Juran gave a small shrug as he leaned back in his chair. “I see nothing wrong with it. Let the commanders have their fun before the festival begins.”

“But still, is it wise to let them associate with each other?”

“Are we not associating with each other?”

Isberi frowned at the Sandari ruler. “Yes, but this is different. The commanders, how can we trust them? How do we know they're not plotting to rebel against us? They have the entire army under their command. It is something we must keep in mind.”

“Isberi, the same thing could be said about us,” Gareth calmly replied, though the conversation was making him uneasy. His dealings with the Kanjaru ruler had revealed the woman trusted very few, but to even doubt the loyalty of her own commander? It seemed suspicious. “The commanders hare sworn their loyalty to us. We have no reason to worry.”

The Kanjaru forest ruler did not seem convinced by the Hirykui ruler's words. “But still, there must be a way to assure their complete loyalty.”

“Why? As I already said, they have already sworn their loyalty to us. Perhaps if you do not trust your commander, you should have chosen someone else.”

Isberi seethed slightly and glared at the Hirykui ruler. “A bit of caution is better than none, Mela Gareth.”

“There is a fine line between caution and paranoia, Maila Isberi. I have my full trust in Commander Renkruia's loyalty to the Hirykui tribe and me.”

“Yes, Gareth, but your relationship with Commander Renkruia is... unique,” Nouma chuckled, setting down his wine glass as Lieries dabbed away the wine trickling down his beard. After several glasses of wine, he had become more subdued and more like his old self.

“Is it any more unique than the other rulers and commanders who have wed in the past? Or any different than the relationship Juran has with his daughter or the relationship Kinara has with her son? Nouma, do you not trust Commander Esteban, who has loyally served you for many years now?”

Nouma set down his glass and looked over at his son. “While I do not doubt his loyalty, you never know what the commanders are thinking and what they might do. I must agree with Isberi; there should be a way to assure complete loyalty of the commanders.”

“If you are looking for complete loyalty, I have a possible solution,” Tonari said, a smile playing on her lips. Everyone turned to their hostess as she stood up and walked over to one of the servants. The hapless girl froze up, her eyes wide with terror as the Aquila ruler reached out and gently caressed the servant's cheek as she whispered something. The girl's eyes rolled back into her head and her legs collapsed as she fell forward. Tonari caught the girl and gently lowered her to the ground before turning away.

Instantly, all the rulers were on their feet. Kinara, who was closest to the servant, walked over and felt for the girl's pulse while the other servants watched with concern. “She's alive, but unconscious. Tonari, what did you do to her?”

Tonari walked back to her seat and sat down as the guards took away the unconscious girl. “Do not worry, she'll awake in a few hours. All I did was cast a simple spell, one even the most basic mage can learn.”

She leaned forward to look at the other rulers, a cold smile on her lips. “I could teach the spell to you. A few words and a wave of your hand and the commander will be rendered unconscious.”

“This is preposterous,” Juran said, outraged. “It is not right to betray the commanders like this.”

“This is no betrayal of any sort, Mela Juran; this is only for our own protection,” Tonari replied as she sipped at her glass of wine. “Mela Gareth, what do you think?”

“Such control over a person, it disgusts me. I will have no part of this,” Gareth said as he stood up and walked toward the door, Juran close behind.

“If you could save the life of your beloved Commander Renkruia, would you not?” Tonari shouted after him. He stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Think, Gareth. Would it not be a way to assure her safety, to stop her from leaving for a dangerous mission? Wouldn't you like that?”

To assure Aerin's safety was the only thing he wanted. He looked over his shoulder to face her and consider her suggestion. Juran placed a hand on his shoulder and shook his head. Gareth looked up at his friend, then over at the ruler before turning around and leaving the room.

“Do not fall for that woman's words, Gareth. You know as well as I nothing good can come from that spell,” Juran said as the doors closed behind him.

“I know, but still, it's a nice thought isn't it?”

“It is and while I would do anything to protect my daughter, she is a commander and I would do nothing to prevent her from doing her job,” Juran shook his head. The Aquila ruler was dangerous enough. Knowing she possessed a spell that could render people unconscious almost instantly was cause for concern.

“You are right, Juran. Though perhaps we should have stayed to learn the spell for the sake of knowing it?”

Juran considered Gareth's suggestion but shook his head again. “Perhaps, but the temptation of using it would be too great. Such power shouldn't be possessed by mortals. Well, I must retire now. I shall see you in the morning. Helali eraka.”

The two went their separate ways. As Gareth headed to his room, he debated checking on the four women, but he reasoned they would already be asleep-- or at least he hoped they would be-- and it would be rude to disturb them at such an hour. Entering his room, he was disappointed to find it empty. While he knew she wouldn't be back into the early hours, he still wished she had returned. Their time together was limited and he wanted to make the most of it.

Someone had lit a fire in the fireplace and several of the lanterns in the room, filling the large room with warmth and light. He shed his robes and cloak, throwing them onto one of the chairs as he entered the adjoining washroom. The water in the tub had already been drawn and heated while a fresh pile of clean towels sat on a pedestal. Removing the rest of his clothing, he eased into the tub and relaxed in the warm water.

Tonari's suggestion remained with him, rising from the depths of his mind. The spell was tempting. Such control would assure the safety of all those he loved. He would never again have to worry about anyone leaving for dangerous missions and never returning or-

No. It was wrong. Such control could be abused and it was wrong to prohibit anyone from doing their duty. As much as he hated seeing Aerin leave for missions and know she may never return, she was a warrior and could protect herself without his help.

He stepped out of the tub and dried himself with a towel. Leaving his clothing on the ground, he wrapped the towel around his waist and he stepped out of the room. To his surprise, Aerin was sitting in one of the plush chairs in front of the fireplace.

“I thought you wouldn't be back until later,” he said, smiling at her as he walked toward her. She raised her hand and mumbled something under her breath as a small smirk crossed her lips.

Gareth gave a small cry as a wave of pain cut through his head. His legs buckled and his vision grew blurry as his eyes rolled back into his head, unconscious by the time he hit the floor.

Less than an hour later, Gareth awoke face-down on the bed. Someone had blown on the lanterns and the fire in the fireplace had died with only a few red embers clung onto to life. The window curtains had been drawn aside, casting the room in the moonlight's pale blue glow.

Not that it mattered to Gareth. A thick piece of cloth covered his eyes. He would have reached up to remove the blindfold, but his wrists were tightly lashed with a length of rope and attached to the bed post with similar restraints around his knees and ankles.

The tightness of his bonds told him this was no mere joke. Remembering Aerin had also been in the room, Gareth listened for any sign of his wife while calling out, “Aerin? Guards? Anyone?”

“The guards won't be able to help you,” a voice whispered as someone gently stroked his cheek. Gareth gave a small groan of realization as he recognized the voice of the Aquila ruler.

“If you did anything to Aerin, I swear I’ll—“

Tonari gave a light laugh as she drew her hand away and sat on the edge of the bed. “Commander Renkruia is perfectly fine. She’s still out drinking herself silly with the other commanders and won’t be back until much later, giving us ample time together.”

While relieved his wife was safe, there was still his own predicament to think about. Gareth tried to pull himself up and find a more comfortable position for his arms. He was aware of his own nakedness and it distressed him to be in such a state around Tonari. “Free me at once, Tonari. You have gone too.”

Tonari merely laughed and straddled him, pushing him into the mattress. She had studied him while she waited for him to awake, observing each part of him in great detail.

Naked and bound, Gareth was like any other man: amazingly simple and unremarkable in any way, shape, or form. His only redeeming form was his handsomeness. His frame was graceful and skinny with pale skin, smooth and soft with only the faintest hints of scars across the surface.

Lying next to Gareth was a small dagger and she picked it up as she admired Gareth's back in all of its perfection. Placing the blade on his right shoulder blade, she gently pushed down and drew a long curve around his shoulder blade,. Gareth gave a sharp hiss of pain and arched his back.

“Guards!” Gareth shouted as Tonari cut his other shoulder blade. “GUARDS!”

Tonari tapped his cheek with the dagger. “I told you already the guards won't be able to help you. Why don't you relax and enjoy yourself?”

She continued to cut him, switching between her blade and her own fingernails. While the cuts weren't deep, they were painful and several would leave lasting scars. Unused to such pain, each cut was excruciating and he screamed in agony.

But worse than the pain was the damage to his pride and dignity. To be in such a humiliating position and unable to do anything infuriated him and drove him crazy. He seethed in anger as he tried to free his wrists.

Satisfied, Tonari stroked Gareth's bloody back, deliberately running her fingers over the cuts before wiping off the blood on the bedsheets. Sliding off of him, she smiled as she rolled him onto his back. Gareth screamed in pain as his arms twisted and one of his shoulders dislocated itself.

“Tonari, release me now,” Gareth gasped out. Between blood loss and the pain in his arms, he was finding it harder to remain conscious. While he knew Tonari wouldn't dare kill him, how far she was willing to go was still unknown.

“But we've only just begun,” Tonari purred as she stroked his chest, her hand trailing down to his stomach, then to his flaccid member, gripping it lightly as she began to stroke it.

Gareth recoiled at her touch as he gave hiss of pain and pleasure between clenched teeth. Despite his pain and his deep loathing of the Aquila woman, he felt himself grow erect under her hand.

“S-stop it,” he gasped between clenched teeth as Tonari laughed.

“How does it feel, Mela Gareth, to be at my mercy? To know I can do whatever I wish to you and know I will do whatever I wish to you?”

She straddled him, her legs wrapping around him as she leaned forward to kiss his lips, bitting down on his lower lip as her hands pulled his blindfold away.

Gareth tried to pull his head away as he looked at her, giving a cry of surprise. Illuminated in the moonlight was Aerin's face, her brown hair loose and flowing around her shoulders. The top of her tunic was open, revealing the top of her breasts while her pants hung loosely on her hips, threatening to slide off.

He only gaped in amazement as he tried to comprehend how his wife could be in the room and how she could have let this happen to him. Aerin in turn sat up as her hands reached up to pull away the top of her tunic, revealing more of her breasts while she gave a seductive smile.

“Dear Gareth, how I could make love to you in this form if you so desired,” came Tonari's voice from Aerin's lips. “I could pleasure you in ways you've never dreamed of before.”

Tanned skin grew pale as brown hair lightened. Gareth gave a surprised gasp as he looked into Flarka's face, the innocent and gentle face turned twisted and cold under Tonari's command. “Or perhaps bed you as your personal servant or the goddess Alashina depending where your tastes lie. Or perhaps...”

White hair turned silver and lengthened as pale skin darkened once more. Gareth only stared in horror at the face of the Sandari ruler. Juran gave a small smirk as he reached out, tilting Gareth's chin up with one finger.

“But in reality, I'd rather take you as myself,” Tonari whispered as Juran's features turned back into her own. A smile on her face, she slowly slid out of Aerin's clothing, tossing it aside as she eased herself onto Gareth's erection, giving the smallest moan as she rocked against him.

A moan mixed with pleasure and pain escaped Gareth's lips as he closed his eyes. His back dug into the mattress, rubbing at the cuts while his arms had gone numb, though the pain in his shoulders still remained. Tears streamed down his cheek as wave after wave of pain cut through him as well of waves of pleasure.

In the moonlight, Tonari continued to take Gareth, robbing him of his dignity as she inflicted injury after injury on him. Sometimes it was a painful nip on the neck or the ear, other times it was raking his chest with her nails, now caked with his blood and skin.

“T-T-Tonari, please, s-s-top,” he gasped out. “P-p-lease stop!”

Tonari ignored his plea and only increased her speed, increasing the volume of her moans, knowing it would only bother the Hirykui ruler more. Upon reaching his peak, Gareth gave a cry of pain and pleasure as he climaxed, his eyes rolling into the back of his head as he passed out.

Tonari regarded his still form, checking for a pulse as she slid off of him. “Such a shame, I was looking forward to so much more,” she remarked as she kissed him on the cheek. Picking up the discard breeches and tunic, she dressed herself as walked toward the door. She cast one final look at the unconscious ruler before leaving the room.

It was another hour before five of the six commanders even returned to the castle, laughing and leaning on each other as they walked down the hall.

Aerin laughed as she leaned against the door to her room and waved goodbye to Alek, Enrico, and Nokane, who were headed toward the opposite end of the hall. Jeyer stood next to her, also leaning against the wall.

“Sweet Kalrasha above, why the hell did I drink that last bottle?” Aerin asked as she searched for her room key.

“Because you're a flippin' idiot,” Jeyer replied with a grin on his face as Aerin laughed in agreement as she found her key and opened the door.

Entering the room, Aerin immediately knew something was wrong. The smell of blood filled the air as well as the sense of death. Automatically reaching for her sword, she slowly scanned the room. It was dark and quiet, as was proper in the late hours of the night, but it seemed too quiet. Her skin crawled as she walked toward the bed, Jeyer close behind her.

Nothing prepared her for the sight she saw. Still tied to the bed and unconscious was Gareth, covered in blood. Despite years of training and conditioning toward gruesome and bloody sights, Aerin fell to her knees as tears streamed down her face, her body shaking. She tentatively reached out to touch Gareth, her hand quickly drawing back when she touched cold skin. Drawing up more courage, she reached out again, this time seeking for any sign that he was still alive. Holding her hand above his nose and mouth, she was relieved to feel the faintest breaths of air against her palm.

“W-who.... Who did this?” Aerin whispered as saw the bloody dagger lying next to him. Seizing the weapon, she quickly severed the ropes around her husband's wrists and legs and gently straightened his limbs out. “Who could have done this?”

Yet she already knew. Looking at the wounds inflicted on her husband, Aerin knew there was only one person capable and crazy enough to do such a thing and only one person able to get away with it.

“I'll get a healer,” Jeyer whispered. Upon seeing the Hirykui ruler, he felt sickened and angered, also knowing who had done such a thing. “There should be one in the castle.”

Remembering the other commander was still in the room, Aerin quickly composed herself as she stood up and faced Jeyer, brushing her tears away from her face. “No, I don't want a castle healer. I need someone who won't say anythin' to anyone. Get Shahni, she's my personal healer. She should be in the headquarters. Hurry, please.”

Jeyer nodded as he quickly departed the room. Aerin immediately set to work, first lighting the lanterns in the room and rekindling the fire in the fireplace. Looking at her husband in the light, she shuddered as she looked at his injured body. While his injuries were far less gruesome and horrific then some of the cuts she had seen on others, to see his body so cruelly and senselessly abused sickened her.

Jeyer returned shortly with the healer, a tall Tenbnea woman dressed in a long nightgown with an apron and cloak hastily thrown on. Her black hair was still messy, but pulled back with a clip. Over her shoulder was a leather knapsack. It was obvious she was tired, but she managed a smile as she bowed at the Hirykui commander, knowing she would have never called if there wasn't an emergency.

Scanning the Hirykui woman and seeing nothing wrong with her, she looked over at the bed Aerin was standing next to. Walking over to the bed, her jaw dropped open in surprise.

“Alashina's grace and Simarlu's beauty,” the healer whispered as she looked at the Tenbnea man. “Who did this?”

Aerin shook her head, a pleading expression on her face. “That's not important right now. He was tied up when I found out, I don't know how long he's been like this. Please, can you help him, Shahni?”

Seeing how distressed the Hirykui commander was, the healer gave a reassuring smile as she assessed the ruler's injuries. Cuts of varying degrees of severity, a dislocated shoulder, rope burns on the wrists and legs. The blood dried to the white bedsheets hinted that there were injuries still unseen.

Shahni signed as she rolled her sleeves back and brushed away a strand of black hair. It was nothing she hadn't seen before and nothing a bit of magic, salves, and bandages couldn't fix. But it wasn't the physical damage that worried her-- it was the psychological.

“Before we can do anything, we'll have to fix that shoulder of his and get him cleaned off. Commander Torlye, prepare a warm tub of water in the wash room and get more towels. Commander Renkruia, stay here and help me with Mela Gareth. I'll need to reset his shoulder then see what other injuries he sustained.”

The two commanders dutifully obeyed the healer's orders, Jeyer jogging off to prepare the water while Aerin helped to fix the Tenbnea man's injured shoulder. Gareth gave a light groan and turned his head when they touched him. They were relieved to know he was still alive and holding on, but it still worried them. Shahni closed her eyes and cast a simple spell, sending him into a deeper sleep before they popped his shoulder back into place. When that was fixed, the two carefully turned him over, slowly pulling the blood-soaked bed sheets away from his back.

“Kalrasha above, such barbarism toward such a good man...” Shahni whispered as she looked at the cuts on his back, far worse then the ones inflicted. Each cut random and backed with so much hatred, but there was a sense of order behind them. The cuts rarely connected each other and when they did, intersected at the most sensitive and painful pots of the body. It was not inflicted by a wild madman or madwoman, but someone who had harbored a deep hatred for the Hirykui ruler. Or perhaps...

She looked at the Hirykui commander. The warrior had been quiet, obediently tending to the wounds of her husband and taking orders with no protest or complaint. “Aerin, do you know who did this?”

Aerin looked at the healer and gave a grim nod. Behind the pain and fear on her face was the cold anger of a person who thirsted for vengeance and justice. “There is no doubt in my mind as to who did it. However, I would not want to do anythin' before speakin' to Gareth an' right now his health is more important.”

Shahni nodded in agreement. “Very well. I will ask no more until you are ready to tell me.”

Jeyer reentered the room and with his help, the three carried the unconscious man into the washroom. While the two women washed him, Jeyer went back into the bedroom to change the sheets and set up the healer's equipment. When Gareth was clean, he was carried back to the bed and placed on his stomach as they began to close up his wounds. On the deeper wounds and the ones more visible, Shahni used her magic to seal up the wounds and leave only light scars of bruises. For the rest of the wounds, they liberally applied healing salves and bandages.

When they were finished, Gareth's chest and back was covered in a swath of bandages. Gently easing him into a night gown, they tucked the blankets around him. Aerin tenderly brushed back a lock of her husband's hair and kissed his forehead. “My poor dear, may rest bring calm and peace to your troubled soul.”

“The spell I cast on him should keep him asleep until at least late into the afternoon,” Shahni replied, stifling a small yawn. It was edging toward the early morning and exhaustion was beginning to catch up with the three adults. “Still, once he wakes up, keep keep him in bed. His wounds weren't that serious, but I'm sure he's a little shocked from the encounter.”

She gave the Hirykui commander a reassuring smile. “He'll be fine, Aerin. You don't have to worry.”

While Aerin still looked concerned, she accepted the healer's words and gave a respectful bow. “Thank you, Shahni. How can I ever repay you?”

The Tenbnea healer gave a small smile and a wink as she returned the bow. “Humph, don't worry about repaying me now. I still have to tend to your wounds this week, remember? I'll come back in the afternoon to check up on him and change his dressings. Well, now I must be off. Helali masa to the both of you and may Kalrasha keep you safe.”

Shahni let herself out of the room. Jeyer gave Aerin's shoulder a tight squeeze and looked at her with concern. In the hours that had passed, the Hirykui commander looked so much older. He wondered how she would fare for the rest of the week with such stress already upon her. “Will you be okay?”

Aerin nodded as she reached up and patted Jeyer's hand. She was exhausted, but knew the rest of the night would be spent watching her husband and thinking over the events. “I'll be fine, Jeyer, do not worry about me. I'm sorry to have kept you up so late.”

“No, I am glad I was able to help you. I'm sorry this happened.”

“I am too, Jeyer. I am too.”

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