Thyria's Bow

Thyria’s Bow

Thyria’s Bow2.jpg

The blast from the horn resonated deeply within me. I bolted upright as the it sounded two more times and echoed through the castle hallways and through the mountains to the north. For hundreds of years the horn of the bayla beast had been used to signal the official end of winter and the beginning of the battle season. This is the season I’ll finally be recognized as a man and I’m excited to begin it.

After changing, I rushed from my room and through the cool gray stone hallways. I was no more than a hundred feet down the hall when Cyelena Romaxren almost ran into me.

“Isn’t it exciting, Karack? The gala event is tonight and tomorrow the first battalion departs for the Fields of Middlenden.”

Cyelena was my only real friend at the castle. I had a crush on her ever since I was ten years old. She had long brown hair and the brightest brown eyes I had ever seen. I knew she was the prettiest girl in the entire realm of Venalleigh.

“We’re both eighteen today. I can go to fight the Darken Horde.”

Cyelena sighed. “That’s not what I hear. I walked in on Thaen and your father the other day. I slipped behind a tapestry when I heard them speak your name. I’m not sure how to put this, but they both agreed you’re too small to be of any use.”

“If I don’t go to war then I’ll not be recognized as a man. I won’t be able to…”

Cyelena had such empathy for me. “I agree, it’s not fair. You have true courage in your heart. War isn’t always about who is the largest, strongest, or has the biggest sword. Thyria Grimsary wasn’t large when she pushed back the Darken Horde last time.”

“No, but she did have a magical bow given to her from the Goddess of love and war, Kassinia, and a dragon that she controlled.”

“You don’t have to be a legend to make a difference, Karack. You have more heart than most of the army put together.”

“If I can hit the target today they’ll have no choice but to recognize me.”

“You’ve hit the target in practice, but that was from half the required distance and with your own bow.”

I looked down, suddenly embarrassed by the conversation. “You don’t think I can do it.”

“You don’t have to be a fighter to win battles, Karack. You know I believe in you. I’ll be there to cheer you on.”

“I better go get ready.”

“I’ll see you on the training grounds. Good luck.”

***

My thin arms shook just raising the heavy wooden bow and that was before I even pulled back the string. The target was so far away. I was a good shot with my bow, but this beast of heavy wood and sinew weighed twice what mine did.

My father, the king of Venalleigh, sat in his chair with my elder brother, Thaen, at his side. Both had disinterested looks, but with my name announced, my father put his hand to his face and looked down. He’s embarrassed by me, but I’ll show him. I’ll show them both. I wish mother… My mother had died giving birth to me and I swear my brother and father both blamed me for it.

Pulling on the string, I could barely get the tips of the bow to bend back towards me. I strained at the effort and lifted the bow so the tip of the arrow pointed upward at forty-five degrees. This would give me the most distance.

I took a deep breath and urged my muscles to pull the bow back even further. In seconds it was all over. I had overpulled for my strength, my right hand began vibrating and that shook the arrow loose just as I left go. The arrow flew straight towards a metal armored guard with a shield. The target was dozens of yards another direction. I shouted a warning, but the guard just laughed as the arrow dropped harmlessly into the dust at his feet.

I heard my brother laugh and my father groaned before the gathered crowd. With a flick of my father’s finger, I was escorted from the training arena.

***

I had effectively been banned from all the pre-gala events. I sat up in the highest tower of the castle staring out the window. That’s where Cyelena found me.

Cyelena looked pensive. “Hey.”

“I guess they were right about me.”

“Don’t ever think that, Karack. You’re a very special person.”

“Special in that I’m not considered a man and my fate is sealed. I’m an embarrassment to my family.”

Cyelena sat down next to me. “I’m sort of glad you get to remain behind. I don’t want anything to happen to you and you’re my best friend. This way I have someone to talk to.”

My heart lurched. “I wanted to marry you, Cyelena. Had I been recognized as a man, I would have asked for your hand in marriage.”

Cyelena took my hand in hers. “I’m flattered. Really, I am. However, there’s something you need to know about me.”

“Now that you’re eighteen, you’ve already been asked.”

“Well… Yes. But I declined every offer. I’m not like other women.”

“You’re right about that. You’re far better than any of the other women.”

“It’s not like that…”

The bayla horn sounded indicating it was time for the feast and dance. I was required to show up being the second prince of the realm.

Standing, I looked into Cyelena’s eyes. I was a fool to believe I ever had a chance with her. Quietly, I slipped away and headed to my room to change for the evening.

***

“Maybe next year you can try again. If you practice hard, you might get the arrow within fifty feet of the target.” Thaen sat back smugly.

“At least I can sleep well at night knowing you only got the good looks and brawn, Thaen. At the end of your life when your looks and strength have fallen like the last of the leaves in autumn, I will still be smarter than you.”

That caused a laugh from the warriors at the table much to Thaen’s dismay.

“I’ll be happy thinking of you serving the old men while I’m on the battlefield. I’ve been giving much thought to your little friend, Cyelena. On my first return from battle, I’m going to bed her and make her my wife.”

Thaen had never liked me, but this was going too far. I pulled my knife and held it menacingly towards him. “Cyelena’s far too good for the likes of you.”

Thaen threw back his chair and stood menacingly above me. With reflexes bordering on those of a striking viper, he grabbed my wrist and twisted hard until I dropped the little knife and cried out in pain.

“Don’t ever threaten me you little piece of horse dung. All it takes is a single word from father and Cyelena’s mine. As a matter of fact, there he is now. My first break from the battlefield is in four weeks. What better time to marry and impregnate Cyelena than while you’re still here to watch.”

I twisted and kicked for all I was worth. My foot landed solidly against Thaen’s thickly muscled calf. His backhand knocked me over several chairs.

I felt hands on my arm lifting me to my feet. “Are you all right, Karack?”

I looked at Cyelena dressed in her finest green gown and reached for a warrior’s dagger before I felt her pull me to the dance floor. Thaen’s laughter drowned out even the loudest music.

“What was all that about?”

“Nothing.”

Her thumb brushed my lip. “You’re bleeding.”

We danced a little and Cyelena put her head on my shoulder. I wished the world ended at that moment, but it didn’t. Thaen grabbed Cyelena’s arm and pulled her close to him. He put his hand on her backside and squeezed.

“You should be dancing with your future husband, a real man, not that little twig of a boy.”

I saw Cyelena squirm and gasp. Grabbing a bottle of wine from a nearby table I smashed it over Thaen’s head. He staggered, but didn’t fall.

“Let go of Cyelena, Thaen!”

He reached for her breast when I lost it. I tackled him and knocked him into a small group of warriors that were standing nearby. I got my leg around him causing him to fall over. The remains of the wine bottle were in my hand and I pressed the sharp glass against his neck.

“Don’t ever touch Cyelena again!”

I was lifted by my breeches up and away from him and plopped down before my father. He slapped me hard. “You’re a disgrace to the Redbeorn family. You should have never been born. Away with you before I disown you completely and give you the punishment you so deserve for attacking a member of the royal family.”

I ran from the great hall straight to my bedroom.

***

The next morning, I stayed in the tower as the first battalion left the castle. I watched Thaen lead the group of one thousand men as he sat astride his black stallion. They would be joined by six other realms bringing close to ten thousand fighters to the Fields of Middlenden.

The following day I avoided the palace altogether and walked deep into the forest to the grand willow tree by the river. There I sat watching the river swell from the spring runoff.

I hadn’t seen Cyelena since the gala dance. If she knew what was best for her, she would head to another realm, find a worthy husband, and forget all about this place.

“You’ve been hard to track down, Karack.”

I looked away as I recognized Cyelena’s voice. “No one would miss me if I slipped off these rocks and drowned in the river.”

“I would miss you.”

“Some good that does you or me.”

Cyelena was silent as she sat down next to me. “I heard what Thaen had said before we danced and how you defended me. When he took me from you during the dance, you fought him. He’s twice your size and you fought him. I’ll never forget you, Karack.”

I finally turned to Cyelena. “That sounds so final.”

“It is. I wish I was Thyria Grimsary. For her part in turning back the Darken Horde, she was granted her own realm and she ruled it the way she wanted.”

“She took another woman as her partner.”

Cyelena’s eyes went wide for a second. “I don’t remember hearing about that. I just wish I had autonomy to make my own choices. You don’t know what it’s like to be a woman.”

I laughed, but then tempered myself as I looked into Cyelena’s eyes and found hurt there. “I can think of some benefits. Not having to prove yourself to become a woman. Not having to go fight the Darken Horde. Not having any expectations to be big and strong.”

“All very true. But we women must make ourselves presentable and always be demure and accepting of any fate or decision handed down to us. We have no say in matters of the realm. If a single man makes a kill on the battlefield, he has what is called the burden of choice, meaning he can choose any single female as his bride. Whomever he selects has the burden of proof. In other words, a woman must prove his unworthiness to avoid marriage. I can’t ever recall any woman having provided the burden of proof. If you’re beautiful…”

“Which you are.”

Cyelena smiled. “Thank you. If you’re beautiful, you’re the possible target of unwelcome advances, like from your brother last night. And we also have our monthly bleeding.”

“This still doesn’t tell me why you’re leaving.”

“I never said I was leaving, just that I’ll never forget you and what you did to protect me.”

“I’ll always defend you.”

“I know you will.”

I watched Cyelena stand and walk away. I grieved that I could never be enough for her.

***

The next morning my father commanded me to an audience with him in the throne room. I stood before the throne with my hands behind my back and my toes curling in my shoes. I waited somewhat impatiently for him to acknowledge me.

“I’m sending you to the Fields of Middlenden.”

I perked up at hearing that. “Really? I’ll need armor. I better go pack my weapons.”

Father looked at me like I had gone completely insane. “Gods you’re stupid sometimes. Not to fight. To deliver a message to your brother.”

“A message?”

A guard handed me a piece of paper. I read it over carefully several times. “You’re sending me to Thaen to tell him you’ve agreed to his marriage of Cyelena on the fourth lunar day of Caesen. That’s four weeks from today.”

“You have two days to reach Middlenden and two to return.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why have him marry Cyelena?”

“It was his choice. Who am I to stand in the way of his bedding that pretty little thing? I’ve considered it myself.”

I felt my blood boiling beneath my skin. “Thaen’s a cruel, thick-skulled imbecile. You’re dooming Cyelena to a life of brutal sex and incoherent conversations.”

“The two aren’t completely incompatible. She’s a thing to be used, nothing else.”

“Would you have said that about Thyria Grimsary?”

“Thyria is a myth, boy, and even if she were living today, I think she and Thaen would make a good couple. Now, be off with your skinny hide.”

***

I packed my things and was about to mount my horse when Cyelena pulled me to the side. “I was afraid of this.”

“Run away, Cyelena. I’ll take longer to get to Middlenden to give you a head start. Run away.”

“You would defy a direct order from your father, your king?”

“Not defy, delay to give you time to leave the realm.”

“My fate will be the same no matter what realm.” Cyelena touched my cheek and kissed me full on the lips. She shivered a little and I wondered if I was that repulsive to her. “Be safe, Karack. I’ll never forget you.”

I mounted feeling quite pleased with myself and even somewhat heroic. A beautiful woman had kissed me before my journey to the war. How romantic is that?

I lifted my chin and rode my mare out of the castle walls, through the city streets, and into the forest, turning south on the road to Middlenden.

***

My ride throughout the day was uneventful except for my constant daydreaming. I pictured myself as a mighty warrior heading off to battle to save the day only to come home to my bride, Cyelena. I stopped in for an overnight stay at the Finmer Lodge. I had only read about this place before; a place for mercenaries and warriors passing to and from the front line. I’d heard so many stories and boldly stepped inside. Using as deep a voice as I could muster, I ordered a pint of their strong, dark hoppy-smelling ale.

Taking my pint to a table, I sat down and found the place lacking anything worthy of great tales. My butt stuck to the stained wooden seat, the table surface was filthy, and unsavory men were boasting about their female conquests. The food was greasy and barely palatable.

The poor serving girls made tips by flirting, but they seemed equally fitting for the place. A giant man with a big red beard sat down across from me. His biceps were twice as large as my thigh.

I felt a need to be bold so I struck up a conversation. “I’m Karack. I’m heading for the front-line tomorrow.”

“People around here call me Red. No offense, but you look a little small for a warrior.”

“None taken, but we all must do our part to hold off the Darken Horde.”

“Spoken like a true citizen of the realm.”

“You don’t feel it’s your responsibility to keep your family safe from the Horde?”

“I have a family I keep very safe, but this war is just a distraction to keep the coffers full. The Darken Horde maintain just as we maintain. Year after year neither give nor gain an inch. It’s all about our royalty taxing people.”

“You really think we fight to generate taxes so the royalty can eat their pastries every morning?”

“Why else?”

“If we don’t stop the Horde, they will take control of everything.”

“Listen, kid. You’re still wet between your ears. Here’s how it works. I’m a king and I want to keep my lifestyle. What I need is an outside threat so that I can increase taxes on the hard-working folk. I send my men into battle each summer, taking relatively few losses. I can repeat that cycle year after year. Have you ever wondered why we don’t lose many people?”

“No.”

“Well, you’ll see it tomorrow then. Our men are barricaded away behind a massive fortress wall. They shoot arrows at anything that gets close. That’s not a war you win. That’s a war you maintain.”

I scratched my head. I had never thought about any of that. Could he be right? Is that why the only test of manhood is a bow and not a sword?

“Sorry to burst your bubble, kid. You’re heading to a war that’s designed to be unwinnable.”

Certainly, he must be wrong.

“What about honor?”

“You think honor is about fighting an unwinnable battle? Honor is doing the right thing for the right reasons, no matter the consequences to yourself. Do you think it’s honorable to force women to marry someone they didn’t choose?”

“Why are you not in the system working to solve these things? Is it honorable to run away from standing up from what is right?”

“You can’t always do what’s right when you’re in prison or worse. Wisdom tells you when you can no longer have an impact on change. That’s what happened to me. I tried to make changes, but reached the limit of what I could do. That’s why I’m here. I can protect those I love and do my best to shelter them from the idiocy of the world in which we live.”

“You think you could do better than the kings of the realms?”

“I don’t know anyone that doesn’t think they could do better, but I’m realistic. It’s a waste of time to speak about hypotheticals. I was never born a king, but I’m also smart enough to know that power tends to corrupt. While I think I would do better and put people’s lives before mine, I’m not sure how I would react given the chance. I know not everyone would be happy. Maybe that’s why kings do things to please themselves because they know no matter what someone will be unhappy with their decisions.”

“You’re a good man, Red.”

***

The next morning, I got up and left the lodge. On my journey I pondered what I might see. I had read so many battle strategies through my studies and I pictured intense fighting and strategic positioning. Armies on horseback sweeping in to flank the enemy. Fires burning and smoke billowing in the air mixing with the morning fog as it swept across the battlefield.

As I approached the front line, I was dismayed by what I saw. Thousands of men standing on a thick stone wall. They would stand, take a shot with their bow, and sit back down. Men were milling around joking and grabbing women that served them food by the fires.

Dismounting, I worked my way to a tent with our realm’s flag on it. There, in the midst of luxurious tapestries on the floor, sat Thaen, drinking wine from a glass goblet and sampling a selection of cheese.

“Why are you here, brother?”

“Father sent me to you with a message.”

“Must be important to send you or perhaps we ran out of scullery maids and you were the next in line.”

“He sent me to inflict the greatest humiliation to me.”

“He doesn’t need to send you here for that. You do it to yourself every time you wake up in the morning.”

There was a large shout at the wall which roused everyone to their feet. I ducked out of the tent to see what was going on. People were running towards the wall when a huge stone smashed a section away knocking several men to the ground with obvious grave wounds. My first thought was the Darken Horde were using catapults. Ignoring my brother for a moment, I ran to the wall and peeked over. The Horde was advancing with two very large creatures leading them. I watched one pick up a large boulder the size of a horse and throw it towards our wall. Two men were nearly crushed as the wall exploded into the camp.

Darken Horde are smaller than humans and have spindly arms and legs, sharp fangs for teeth, and bluish-gray skin. Their fingernails were long and sharp. They appeared more animal than human, but they possessed the knowledge and skills to forge metal and build cities. Legend tells us that when the gods placed life on this world, they made humans and we lived in peace. Then, one god, Norath, became jealous of the others and the gods fought. With the combined might of the three other gods, he was cast down to our world losing much of his power. Filled with hatred against the other gods and their creation, his touch turned the ground to ash and the humans around him into the Darken Horde, mere intelligent animals with the sole desire for killing and destroying everything in their paths.

The large creatures were staying out of bow range and yet our massive wall-mounted crossbows weren’t being used. I ran across the wall, diving to the side to avoid another huge boulder. Upon reaching our crossbow, I saw it was loaded but not pulled. Grabbing two men I ordered them to crank the crossbow mechanism. I was surprised they did as asked and soon the crossbow with a six-foot long bolt was ready.

These had good balance so it wasn’t hard for me to spin it around and line up the shot on one of the giant beasts. I held my breath and released the pin. The vibration of the bow tossed me to the side, but I quickly regained my feet to see one of the beast fall on its face. A cheer rose from the wall and I yelled at the men to load and fire the other large crossbow. In minutes, the second beast was down and the war seemed to have gone back to a steady rhythm.

For me, today had been a good day. A few of the men congratulated me and patted me on my back, but my brother was incensed as he half-dragged me back to the tent.

“What were you doing?”

“Were those beasts normal?”

“Never seen anything like them before. I asked you a question.”

“You’re going to berate me for killing one of those beasts?”

“Out here, I give the orders!”

“Clearly, you lack any understanding of battle tactics as you didn’t order the crossbows to be used.”

“I want you out of here!”

“If those beasts are new, why are we sitting back behind the wall? Don’t we want to win this war?”

“What’s the message from father?”

“How many years have we sat back and held the wall just using archers?”

“You know nothing of war!”

“This isn’t war, it’s defense. Do we come out here every year to raise taxes on the citizens?”

“Who have you been talking… Enough! Give me the message and go.”

“Father says you can marry Cyelena on the fourth lunar day of Caesen.”

Thaen’s mirthless smile grew. “I’ll boast to everyone how I took her on our wedding night.”

“You’ll never touch her!”

“I’ll ignore that treasonous remark and threat. Now get out of here and go back home to your dish cloths and books.”

I mounted my horse and looked back over the wall. Nothing was happening and people were all joking again. Then it dawned on me. Cyelena knew about being promised to Thaen.

I’ll never forget you.”

With sudden realization, I spurred my horse towards home.

***

I rode hard through the night and into the next day, arriving back at the castle late the next morning. Leaping from my horse, I ran through the grounds and to the quarters where Cyelena had her room. I didn’t knock, but opened her door to see her lying on the floor. She had eaten dragonwort!

She was cool and her breathing shallow, but she was alive. I yelled out to staff to start a hot bath and I scooped her mouth of leftover dragonwort. Sticking my finger down her throat caused her to gag and retch. Soon she was lapsing into and out of consciousness. Picking her up, I moved her to the bath and stepped inside it with our clothes and all.

Soon a castle medic arrived and as I massaged warmth back into her extremities he mixed a water and herb concoction to dilute the poison. No questions were asked and I ordered the servants to silence about the matter. I managed to get Cyelena to sip the concoction, and soon, her shaking stopped and her heart began beating stronger.

I wasn’t allowed in her room nor should she be in mine, but I took her to the castle tower and stripped her clothes from her before covering her in warm blankets.

For the next two days I wiped her forehead and fed her small bits of broth. I hadn’t slept the entire time until finally, I was overcome and drifted off.

***

“Karack?”

I jumped to full alert so startled to hear Cyelena’s voice. “Cyelena. How are you feeling?”

“I should be dead. What happened?”

“You tried to end your life. I got back just in time.”

“Why?” She started to cry. “Why did you save me?”

“Because you’re all that’s worth living for. I won’t let you marry Thaen. We’ll run away together before that takes place. There’s always a way where you can be happy and free to choose your own path.”

Cyelena looked so sad. “You should have let me die. I have no future and the person I love I can’t be with.”

I was crestfallen. She loves someone else. I was used to disappointment though. My whole life was a disappointment. “Tell me who this person is that you love and I will do my best to find a way so you can be together.”

“It’s not that simple, Karack. It would be better for me if I were dead.”

“How could I let the one person in the whole world that doesn’t think I’m a misfit die? I’m selfish that way, but I need you in my life. You know I’ve always loved you, but I accept that you love someone else and the best I can hope for is your friendship. A long friendship, not one cut off by you taking your own life. I promise to help you find a way to be happy.”

“You’re a better friend than I deserve, Karack. I’m afraid there are no options. I’m bound by rules and laws, given to your brother without my consent, and can’t be with the one I truly love. There’s no happy ending for me.”

“You can’t give up, Cyelena. Every day I wake up wanting to be different, respected, admired…” I paused and took a deep breath. “…loved. Every night I go to bed wishing the same thing for myself and wake the next day to see nothing changed at all. It’s a never-ending cycle, but I get up and do what I need to do hoping to see one small positive change in my life and I know that someday I’ll make a small positive difference in another person’s life.”

“I’m not as strong as you, Karack.”

“You just need a change in your life. Leave this place with me. I need your help and getting away from here will help us both.”

“Go away? Where?”

“I have it all planned out. In a few days, after you’re stronger, we’ll leave for Ashadale.”

“Ashadale? What’s good in Ashadale?”

“You’re going to think I’m crazy.”

“Yes. I always have, but in a good way.”

“I saw something at the Fields of Middlenden. The Horde had two new beasts that were much larger than the others. I recalled reading something and while I watched over you the past two days I did some more investigating. I think I found a few things that might help us in our fight with the Darken Horde. The first is that before Thyria Grimsary came along the Darken Horde began creating enhanced creatures and the tide of battle began to turn in their favor. Over time the Horde produced larger and larger beasts to do their bidding. Humans were on the brink of destruction when Thyria joined the war effort. After the war ended, Thyria discovered the Darken Horde were using an ancient scroll she dubbed the Darken Rites. This scroll described how the Darken Horde were enhancing their beasts. She tried to destroy the scroll, but it was magically protected from destruction, so Thyria took the scroll and hid it from the rest of the world. After seeing the new beasts in Middlenden, I believe the Darken Horde has found the scroll and have begun enhancing their creatures.”

“People would tell you Thyria and all of that is nothing more than mythical nonsense; a legend of old more fable than truth.”

“Most fables come from a seed of truth. I saw the creatures, Cyelena. None of the warriors had ever seen anything like them before. It makes sense.”

“Okay. Let’s assume you’re correct. What has that got to do with you and me leaving here?”

“I made a promise to you to take care of you, keep you from marrying my brother, and see that you’re happy. Getting you out of here takes care of part of that promise. However, if the Horde really is enhancing their beasts, then humans won’t stand a chance. The world won’t be safe, and you will never be free or happy. Like it or not, our destinies and happiness are tied to the Darken Horde.”

Cyelena squeezed my hand. “Karack, you risk much. You defy your brother and father for my sake and safety. I can’t ask you to do this.”

“I’m unhappy and disregarded in my own home. I have ideas to help humans overcome the Darken Horde, but I’m ignored. If helping you find freedom and happiness defies my father, the king, then so be it. I’m little more than a waif to him anyways. I must believe I’m doing something, anything to make our lives better. In helping you, I help myself become the man I always wanted to be.”

“Tell me this crazy plan of yours.”

“Assuming the Darken Horde either have the scroll or have found a way to enhance their beasts, then humans only have one chance. We need a dragon.”

Cyelena giggled. “No one has seen a dragon in a hundred years.”

“That doesn’t mean they don’t still exist.”

“All right. You find a dragon and it snaps you in two with its powerful jaws or it roasts you with fire. That still doesn’t help.”

“I agree with you. That’s why we need to find Thyria’s bow. Her bow was given to her by the Goddess, Kassinia. It’s the only bow that can hurt a dragon.”

“Then that’s the what you found? You think you found Thyria’s bow?”

“Not exactly. I found a reference to an ancient archive.”

“And the archive must be in Ashadale. Just to summarize all of this. The Darken Horde are enhancing beasts so we need a dragon to push them back. To get a dragon you need to find Thyria’s bow and you think references to the bow’s location might be found in an archive in Ashadale. You want me to go with you to Ashadale to protect me from your brother. Is that everything?”

“Pretty much, just in the wrong order. My priority is your safety and well-being. Escaping this place and going to Ashadale accomplishes that but it allows me to possibly help save the human race in the process.”

A little life had returned to Cyelena’s eyes. “When do we leave?”

***

It took several days until Cyelena regained enough strength and we used that time to prepare for our journey. We were, in essence, going to steal from the realm as I owned nothing but my clothes. I would take two horses from the stables, food, and gear, and I wasn’t planning on bringing any of it back. Soon, I would be a wanted criminal. Wanted for treason, kidnapping, defying my king, and no better than a common thief.

I checked in on Cyelena every day to make sure she was getting her energy back and I still feared she might try to kill herself again. I loved her and she knew that, but she also had made it quite clear I wasn’t the one for her. It pained my heart more than all the other disappointments in my life. However, I would not let her down. I made my promise to her and I intended to keep that promise.

We were just preparing our horses when a guard spotted me. “Karack. The king requests your presence immediately.”

I glanced over at Cyelena and whispered. “Keep packing. If I’m not back in an hour, leave without me.”

I followed the guard with my trepidation building every step closer to the throne room. Has father found out my plans?

The massive doors were pushed open and I entered, only to have the doors close ominously behind me.

“What were you thinking?”

“I’m not sure what you’re asking, Father.”

“You went to the front line and shot a beast with a crossbow. Did you think I wouldn’t hear about that? War is no place for you.”

“It just happened. The Darken Horde had two larger beasts with them that were breaking the wall and injuring our men. No one was considering using the crossbows. I had to do something.”

“For once in your life I’m actually impressed. You should have told me about it.”

“I didn’t believe… When I returned, I found out Cyelena was very sick and I went to see if I could help.”

His eyes pierced my heart and soul. “About Cyelena. She is promised to Thaen and it is inappropriate for you to be seen with her. As of today, you’re not to see her again.”

My anger spiked, but I said nothing. It would do me no good to argue. Red would call this wisdom, but it was more self-preservation. “Father, the larger beasts… I’ve read some ancient history scrolls and at the time of Thyria the Darken Horde had found a way to raise up new, larger beasts. It’s possible they’re doing it again.”

“That’s what you’ve always been good at, Karack. Reading. It’s time you marry and settle down. You’re no use to me in war, but you might just be of use bolstering an alliance with another realm. I’ve sent a message off to Tryeste requesting you marry Helgora, the king’s third daughter.”

Bile caught in my throat. “Helgora? Isn’t she the one that broke our chair that last time they came to visit?”

“Don’t question me on this. There’s not another princess in the world that would marry you and no man has asked for Helgora’s hand in the twelve seasons since she came of age.”

I bit my tongue to clear my head from the hideous images that were running through it. She was nearly twice my age and four times my weight. “Is that all, Father?”

With a flick of his hand I was dismissed. Once away from the throne room, I ran back to the stables to find Cyelena had just finished packing them.

“Let’s go. We need to leave right now!”

“What’s wrong.”

“Father ordered me to stay away from you as it was deemed disgraceful since you’re promised to Thaen.”

“What’s disgraceful is that I was promised to Thaen. You’re sure you want to leave, Karack? There’s no turning back from this.”

“I need to leave more than you’ll ever know.”

***

Thankfully no one had stopped us as we left the palace and surrounding city. We travelled west towards Ashadale and through the thickly forested region of the Lower Highland Mountains. At dusk we found a campsite and I started a fire as Cyelena laid out our bedrolls.

“I never thanked you for saving my life, Karack. I heard all that you did for me. I don’t deserve your friendship, but I’d not give it up for anything.”

I stared at Cyelena’s perfect tanned face, now slightly orange from the flames of the fire. “You would have done the same for me.”

“I know I would. Sometimes I think you know me better than I know myself. You’re going to make a wonderful husband to some lucky woman.”

The image of Helgora came to mind and I shivered. “Thanks for saying that, but you and I both know I’m nothing to look at. The only way I’ll get married is if I return and am forced to marry Helgora of Tryeste.”

“Your father didn’t…?”

“He did.”

“Isn’t Helgora the one that demanded the doorways be widened so the frames wouldn’t touch her when she went through?”

“Don’t remind me.”

Cyelena laughed. “I’m sorry, Karack. I don’t mean to make light of it. I know what it’s like to be promised to someone you could never imagine yourself with.”

“It’s almost as disheartening to imagine the person you want to be with but know you can’t.”

“Karack, I…”

“Don’t say it. I know. Good night, Cyelena.”

“Good night, Karack.”

***

For four days we travelled west before turning north to follow the Black River into Ashadale. The river was said to be black because it collected ash from the lands of the Darken Horde. As we rode, we spoke of everything except what was on our hearts. Ever since we left Venaleigh, Cyelena’s mood improved daily. She even touched me more than ever before. A slight brush of her fingers against my arm, or a hug every now and then. For me, these touches were as painful as a dagger to my heart. Every touch sent a spark through me that drove me insane with desire; a desire to hold her close. Yet I fought the urges knowing she was merely being friendly and thankful.

As we entered Ashadale, I felt the city looked much like I felt. It was as if the builders mixed black soot with the bricks. The entire city was dull and gray. I felt my mood darkening much like the dingy walls that reflected little sunlight.

After five days on the road, we were both filthy and dirty and I decided to use a silver coin to get us a room at an inn. The only problem was we only found a single room. Cyelena was fine with the arrangement, but I wasn’t. While she set about cleaning and organizing our clothes, I looked for food and information on the archive. It was late when I returned to the room to find Cyelena had bathed and looked stunning in her sleeping gown.

“I’ll get one of the bedrolls.”

“Don’t be silly, Karack. We can both fit in the bed.”

Looking at Cyelena as the sleeping gown hid little of her lithe and beautiful body, I became aroused, but then angry. “You don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what?”

“What you do to me. Every day I look upon the most beautiful woman this world has ever seen… You’re caring and compassionate, smart and kind. I yearn for your touch and yet every time you touch me I’m reminded you love someone else. I see you in that gown and look upon that small bed and know your very closeness would cause me such pain. I’ll find someplace else to sleep, thank you.”

Without waiting for a word from Cyelena, I headed downstairs to the pub and indulged in numerous pints of dark ale.

***

Freezing cold water splashed against my face and shocked me into full awareness. Full awareness with a splitting headache. I looked up into the angry eyes of Cyelena.

“Get up and get in here.”

She was pointing to our room. I stood and shook the dizziness from my dripping head. Stepping into the room from the filthy hallway I had slept in, Cyelena closed the door behind me.

“Sit!”

I plunked myself down in the overstuffed chair, barely able to bring my eyes to Cyelena’s face.

“We need to talk because this isn’t working.”

“What’s to talk about? You love someone else and your very presence hurts.”

“You need to listen to what I have to say. If after that and my presence still hurts you then I’ll continue somewhere else on my own.”

I nodded acceptance but I knew I couldn’t let her leave alone.

“Remember I told you I’m not like other women?”

“Yes.”

“When I was young, my uncle and cousin came to visit. You know my father died in the war and I felt my father’s brother always wanted to marry my mother. He came to visit us when I was seven years old. While at our home, he and my cousin raped me over and over again.” She began to cry. “They hit me, choked me, and took everything from me. It all stopped when my mother found my uncle attacking me one night, but the damage was already done. I’m not a virgin and the thought of being with a man…” She shuddered.

Anger rose up within me. “Tell me who your uncle and cousin are and I will kill them!”

Cyelena offered a weak smile. “Always my protector. You’ve always been there for me. It’s why I love you.”

“Wait! What? You love me?”

“I always have. I wished for the day you would become a man and could ask to marry me, but I could never be with a man. I still have nightmares.”

I sat up suddenly interested in where the conversation was going. “I killed a beast of the Darken Horde. I can ask you to marry me.”

“You don’t understand, Karack. I can’t be with a man. I need to go far away where it’s more acceptable for women to marry one another. That or find some place I’ll never be found by men until I’m an old spinster that no man would ever find desirable. Besides, you never had your kill acknowledged, which only the king can do, and I was promised to your brother before that.”

“I’m still willing to marry you, Cyelena. That’s what love is. Even if we could never be together, my marriage to you would offer you some protection. We just need to go far enough away where I can find a living to earn enough money to keep you comfortable.”

“I’m flattered, Karack, but you know in your heart that true love is willing to sacrifice, but true love also won’t allow the other to suffer. As much as you would be willing to marry me knowing that I could never be fully yours, I could never accept that sacrifice from you. You’ll find love. I know it.”

“Such goes the story of my life. I’ll be honest with you, Cyelena. I’m not sure I could love another woman. I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting. I had no idea. Are you certain you could never be with me?”

“I…” She turned away from me. “I still feel their hands on me. Their weight pressing down against me. Their filthy… No. I’m sorry, Karack.”

I stood, my headache had retreated and my mind was clear. “Then I’ll be your companion and friend and will hopefully be there when you find the right woman.”

Cyelena turned back to me. Tears were falling down her cheeks. “My best friend, always. I’ve said it before; I don’t deserve you in my life, Karack.”

“We all deserve to be loved and cared for.”

She smiled. “Even Helgora?”

I shuddered. “Yes, even Helgora. Just that I’m not the one for her.”

“You still need a bath. Did you find anything out about the archive?”

“Just a rumor that the archive is beneath the palace. If it is there, I’ll need to get approval from the king here.”

“You don’t look enthused about the prospect of meeting the king.”

“If word gets back to my father that we’re here, I’m afraid for us both.”

“Would the king of Ashadale recognize you?”

“Most likely.”

“Then make up a story. I’ll pose as your wife and we’re here at your father’s request. The Darken Horde must be stopped and he believes you might have a plan for saving us all. It would take the king of Ashadale eight days to confirm your story.”

“You would pose as my wife?”

“It makes sense. You killed a beast and asked for my hand in marriage. Your father was pleased with you and allowed the marriage, but decided it was in everyone’s best interest to see if your plan was feasible.”

“It also protects you from Ashadale’s single men. All right. Let’s do it.”

Cyelena sniffed me. “You really need to bathe first.”

***

My mood had greatly improved even though I remained disheartened. To know that Cyelena loved me but felt she could never be with a man was yet another strike against my life. Had her uncle and cousin never harmed her, I could have married the love of my life. Had I been born handsome and strong, I would have earned more respect from my family. Had I… I sighed. Going down this road of thought wouldn’t help anything.

At least getting in front of the king of Ashadale would be easy and we wouldn’t even have to wait days in line to see him. One of the few perks of being a prince, I guess. Cyelena had donned an outfit that was both conservative and alluring and we found a ring in a city shop to indicate her married status. I marveled at her ability to be so poised.

We were announced and Cyelena and I walked forward and bowed to the king.

“I only see members of the royal family of Venalleigh at the end of season banquet. What brings you to Ashadale?”

“A week ago, I was at the Fields of Middlenden. The Darken Horde controlled two enhanced beasts, akin to the beasts at the time of Thyria. Concerned that the Horde might have stumbled upon the Darken Rites scroll, my father sent me here to search the ancient archives for more information.”

“I’ve heard of the new beasts. It’s disturbing. What do you hope to find in the archives?”

“References to Thyria and the Darken Horde beasts.”

The king turned his attention on Cyelena. “And you? Why are you here?”

“Karack and I recently married and per custom we must spend the first two weeks together. I will assist Karack in his search and tend to his needs.”

The king’s eyebrow moved up a notch. “You? With him?”

Cyelena hadn’t ever been in the presence of a king much before, but I was impressed by her courage.

“I’m not sure what you’re implying, your Majesty. You’ve heard of the new beasts the Darken Horde are using. Karack single handedly brought one of them down saving countless lives. As you’re aware, by killing a Darken Horde beast, Karack earned the right to choose his bride. We grew up together and I couldn’t be more thrilled to have such a noble and courageous man as my husband.”

I was dumbfounded but I felt myself grow an inch taller at Cyelena’s words.

“Last I spoke with your father, Karack, he told me he was marrying you off to Helgora.”

“My father was pleased with my actions on the battlefield and gave me the freedom of choice.”

“Very well. I’ll have one of my guards escort you to the archives. My only request is that you not remove anything.”

“We’ll handle everything with the utmost care. Thank you.”

With a wave of his hand we were dismissed and led beneath the palace to the archives. The guard unlocked the heavy doors and with a whoosh of stale, dusty air, he led us inside. Torches were lit and the guard told us he would wait outside.

The archive was a mass of hundreds of shelves laden with scrolls and deteriorating leather-bound volumes.

“Where do we begin, Karack?”

I was still staring in awe at Cyelena and her question brought me around. “You were amazing with the king.”

“It’s easy when I didn’t have to outright lie. I just stretched the truth a little. You really are courageous and noble.” Cyelena giggled. “Don’t let it go to your head.”

I nodded and looked around. “We could be in here for years, but we should focus on finding an index.”

“This place doesn’t look touched in fifty years. What would an index look like?”

“Like a large, thick ledger.”

Even as I said it, I could see thousands of such books that could be what we were looking for.

“We need to be systematic then. I’ll start on the back shelf and work forward. You can start on the desks then move to the front shelves and work back.”

***

Five days we had spent in the dusty archive. Each night I would blow my nose to find black soot and dust from the scrolls. We found several indexes, but they merely listed what was in the archive, not where the item was.

Time was running out and even more so that I heard the king of Ashadale had sent a messenger to my father in Venalleigh. To be safe, we needed to find something and leave Ashadale before the messenger returned. Leaving a few days before that happened would be crucial to our not being thrown in prison.

“This is like a treasure hunt, Karack, except I’m not finding any gold. I’m not sure my hair will ever be the same.”

“I know. It’s frustrating.”

“I think we should leave tonight. I’m worried.”

“As much as I want to find Thyria’s bow, I know you’re right. We can’t stay much longer. I thought it would be here. I thought I could save everyone.”

Slamming my fist against a shelf I was rewarded with a pile of loose scrolls and dirt raining down on my head.

Cyelena came over and started dusting me off when she looked down and carefully picked up a scroll. “This looks ancient. I can’t read it.”

We moved over to a desk and I carefully unwrapped the brittle scroll. “It’s an ancient text using the older glyphs. Look here. That says Thyria. This scroll seems to be Thyria’s history.”

“What does it say?”

“The first part talks about how Kassinia appeared to Thyria. Thyria had been a devoted worshipper of Kassinia and her realm was nearest to the front where the battle was being fought against the Darken Horde. While praying in the temple, Thyria recalls hearing the screams of those outside. The doors of the temple burst open and she was faced with a huge beast. Thyria had no weapons, but as she turned to run, a bow appeared before her. Taking up the bow, she felt power course through her. She shot and killed the beast and then Kassinia appeared to her.”

“What realm was closest to the Darken Horde at that time?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“How do we know this is true?”

“Without dating the scroll properly, we don’t. We must take what we read as strong evidence, but we can’t rely on it fully. The scroll goes on to recount Kassinia’s conversation to Thyria and how Kassinia told Thyria to go to Thunder Mountain and fight the dragon until it submits. The next section on how she fought the dragon is missing, but there’s more history on what happened after the war ended. It states that Thyria was given the realm, Llynmera, and at the center of her realm, she built a tower.”

“I’ve never heard of that realm before.”

“I’ve read references to it before. Llynmera was created by taking a portion of each of the realms where they all came together. It continues to say that Thyria ruled over all the realms from her seat of power for nearly sixty years, however, when she died, the realms all abandoned their agreements and reclaimed their old lands. It references her being securely buried in the tower.”

“That’s it?”

“Yesterday we found a map of the realms. Can you find it?”

“Yes. It’s right here.”

We laid out the old map and carefully looked it over. I’d seen maps like this before, but this one showed a shaded area in fine detail whereas I’ve never seen a map showing anything in that location before.

“This shaded area could be Thyria’s realm. It touches all the other realms.”

“It’s so remote. The land is all mountainous and unusable.”

“Have you ever heard of the Valley of Thyria?”

“No.”

“It was said that at the end of the Valley of Thyria, a mighty tower rose into the sky and that inside that tower lies enough gold to buy a realm.”

“You’re talking about the legend of the Realm’s Gold?”

“Yes. I’ve heard rumors of warriors hunting for the gold never to return. But it strikes me as odd that the legend uses the name Thyria. On this map we see the six realms with this area shaded that touches all of them. There’s a maze of valleys that seem to connect the realms here.” I pointed to a spot on the map.

“From that point there is a single valley that moves up into the highest peaks. You think that’s Thyria’s Valley?”

“It’s central to the shaded area with direct access to all the other realms. It would make sense to build a seat of power away from all the other realms where Thyria could live her life the way she wanted. In winter, none of these routes would be passable and in summer we fight the Darken Horde and no one has adventured into these lands in hundreds of years. Without this map, I doubt anyone could find the tower.”

“Then we have a plan. We travel east into the mountains.”

“We have no idea what’s there.”

“Where else do we go, Karack? If this map is accurate, then if we find nothing, we make our way through the mountains east until we reach the realm of Dedfast. That’s as far away from Ashadale and Venalleigh as we can get. Why are you smiling at me?”

“I hear the women of Dedfast are very beautiful.”

Cyelena seemed a little angry. “You’ve been married to me for five days and you’re already thinking of other women?”

“First of all, we’re not actually married and second, I wasn’t thinking of me but of you. I’m sure you can find a pretty girl to sneak away with. Dedfast is a perfect place to find you happiness.”

Cyelena’s eyes softened and she kissed me on the cheek. “You never cease to amaze me.”

“Nor you, me.”

“What do we do now?”

I slipped the map into my shirt. “We leave Ashadale tonight.”

“You’re going to take that? What about the king’s rule? Aren’t you afraid of getting thrown in prison?”

“They’ll never miss it.”

“But you’re stealing.”

“My father is already hunting us. Do you think me taking this map will make things any worse?”

“Not really. But it can’t make things any better.”

“I’ll put it back if you feel confident we can find Thyria’s Valley. I just don’t want to get lost in there and end up as a pair of frozen explorers come winter.”

“You can take it on one condition. If we find Thyria, you locate her bow, you defeat the dragon, and save the world, that you use your mighty power to pardon me.”

“Pardon you?”

“I’m an accomplice.”

“If all that happens and they give me a realm of my own, I’ll do better than that and make you a princess.”

“Done! Let’s get out of here.”

***

We spent the rest of the day gathering things we would need for a long journey and in the darkness of the night, silently slipped out of Ashadale and into the mountains. For the next six days we travelled on roads, then trails, and finally the trails all stopped completely and we navigated across the meadows of the high country.

According to the map, we were nearing the entrance to the Valley of Thyria and estimated it to be at least one more day away. Even with the map, orienting ourselves became quite arduous, but we saw signs of ancient buildings that we assumed must have been old inns along the way.

Day after day we had climbed further up in elevation and we now were forced to walk the horses through snow that may never melt even in the hottest summer.

That night, the wind blew and our little shelter offered little protection from the bitter cold. Cyelena snuggled up to me for warmth and I fought the growing desire to smother her in kisses.

“I’m not sure I can handle another night like this, Karack. It’s so cold.”

“I can only assume we have another day of travel before we find the valley and another day to reach the end of that valley where I’m guessing the tower might be.”

“You know, I wouldn’t be that upset to simply die here. At least I would be with someone I care about, frozen for all eternity.”

I wrapped my arm tighter around her. “If it was easy, everyone would come here.”

“Let’s hope that map is accurate, because without it we would have been lost or trapped for certain.”

“Try to sleep, Cyelena.”

We had both just closed our eyes when the mountains shook with the sound of a mighty roar.

***

We woke early and hopped around to get warmed up. If anything, the temperature had dropped to well below freezing and our path continued upward. We had both talked about the roar we had heard and neither of us could determine exactly what the creature might have been. We looked for signs as we travelled, but could find nothing.

The wind whipped us furiously as we approached the summit. It was bitterly cold and we began to fear for our lives. Pausing, we stared down at a sight neither of us would soon forget; for in the distance, the snow gave way to lush green meadows, forests, and meandering rivers of crystal clear water.

It was all we could do to not rush, but even our horses wanted to leave the stark frozen landscape behind us. It was a quick descent and soon the blanket of snow and ice turned to white patches nestled into the trees and glistening waterfalls spilling over rocky ledges. The air smelled fresh and full of life.

“I wouldn’t believe it if someone had told me about this place.”

Cyelena took a deep breath and looked north into a truly magical place of towering trees, warm breezes, and stunning rugged snow-capped mountains. “Me either. It’s like a pocket of warmth and life in the middle of a frozen wasteland. I think I’m finally thawing out a little. I don’t see a tower but it looks like the valley curves a bit.”

“If legends are true, then at the end of this valley will be Thyria’s tower. Let’s get down to the valley floor then make camp early today as according to the map we have almost a full day ahead of us yet.”

We continued to talk as we descended.

“I wonder if this place stays green in winter.”

“It’s possible. Some of the trees here don’t look to be the kind that would survive harsh winters.”

We were still high enough off the valley floor that we had good visibility. “Is that smoke?”

Looking ahead I could see what she was looking at. Several miles ahead white plumes rose from an emerald green pool of water. “I think it’s steam. It might be a pond of hot water.”

Cyelena laughed. “Just like our kings to give up land they thought was useless and barren only to discover a place filled with warmth and beauty. When I remember the stories of Thyria, I get the feeling she was a bit of an outcast. To think she might have walked these lands with her wife, enjoying peace and tranquility away from the male dominated realms all around her is inspiring. No offense to you, Karack.”

“None taken. I’m not proud of my male kind. We men tend to be brutal, uncaring, and use our might to make women submit.”

“For what it’s worth, you’re the best man I know.”

I laughed at that. “I’ve set a new standard. Ugly, thin, weak, and small.”

“Don’t say those things about yourself.”

“Would handsomely challenged sound better?”

“I’ll tell you a secret you must never tell anyone. Sure, women find men’s strong, chiseled bodies attractive, but we don’t love someone because of their looks alone. Our emotions are tied to many things and character, kindness, goodness, intelligence, and humor all play heavily in our willingness to give of ourselves.”

“That eliminates about ninety percent of the male population.”

“How many married women do you know that are truly happy?”

“I’ve never really thought about it. Most seem fine with the situations they’re in.”

“Fine is not happy, Karack. We know our place and submit to authority. Very few women truly have a chance at real love and happiness.”

“We men have a lot to learn.”

After reaching the valley floor we moved steadily down the valley until early afternoon. We set up camp in a meadow next to a hot water spring and an icy cold river. A pool of hot water seemed to have been hand made to capture and hold water from the river and hot spring with a cleverly designed feeding system to allow more hot or cold water into the pool. Cyelena scooted me away so she could bathe.

Almost an hour later she came back to camp with as large a smile as I ever have seen on her face before.

“This place is heavenly, Karack. I spotted wildlife and trees heavy with fruit. That pool is incredible. I could live here the rest of my days.”

“You wouldn’t be lonely?”

“You could come visit me every year.”

“Maybe I’d rather stay here with you. We’re married after all. You never took your ring off.”

“I’ve grown rather attached to it. It was so nice feeling a small sense of normalcy.”

“We could, you know?”

“We could what?”

“Stay here together. You know I’d never harm you. Perhaps you could learn to trust me over time.”

“Come here.”

I stepped forward and lost myself in Cyelena’s eyes. They were warm and compassionate. Her fingers gently touched my cheek. I was lost in the moment and leaned forward to kiss her. Her other hand was quick to push me away. She turned and stepped back, her body shaking.

“I’m so stupid! Forgive me, Cyelena!”

Silently she wrapped a cloak around her and sat on a log next to the fire. Her eyes betrayed her disgust of me.

“Cyelena please! I won’t do that again. I’m sorry.”

“It’s my fault as much as yours.” She was crying now. “I wanted it to work. I know you would never willingly hurt me. Every time I let you get close I feel the roughness of my uncle’s beard against my cheek and smell the awful stench of his breath on my neck. You have no idea how much I care for you, Karack, but I’m afraid it can never be. The gods have damned me.”

Cyelena pulled hard at the ring and threw it away before turning from me. I heard her crying late into the night and my heart broke. I had thought this journey might slowly bring us together, but now, at this moment, it felt like the end.

***

When morning came, I had lost all enthusiasm for our quest, the beautiful hidden valley, and any hope that Cyelena and I could even remain together. It was tearing us both apart. Cyelena found me reviewing the map.

“I’m sorry for last night, Karack.”

“I’m taking you to Dedfast. I’ll give you whatever money I have left so you can settle and find a new life.”

“You’re not thinking this through. Did you sleep at all?”

“How could I sleep knowing how badly I’ve wronged you?”

“No. You’ve never wronged me. Don’t ever think that. Fate has destined that I will forever be alone but that doesn’t mean we should give up our quest. We’re here where perhaps no person has stood in hundreds of years. Down this valley might lie Thyria’s tower. One day is all we need to be sure and we owe it to ourselves and to all our race to see if we can find the bow. I’ve never doubted you, Karack. If you believe the darken Horde are rising once again and the only way we live is to control a dragon, then I believe you. I will always believe you.”

I bit my tongue at my disappointment. Be it fate, destiny, or the gods, I will be forever angry at them all for what has happened to Cyelena. “All right. One day.”

We both packed in silence and mounted our horses before turning north up the valley.

***

We both dismounted when we turned a corner in the valley and looked upon the scene before us. A ring of sharp snow-capped mountains formed the backdrop. In the foreground, a shimmering lake of the deepest blue water was surrounded by flowering meadows and trees. But neither the magnificent views of the mountains nor the lake drew our attention like the white stone palace standing elegantly between the nearest mountain and the lake. It was a small palace compared to most. Modest even. However, it’s beauty and elegance surpassed any palace I had even seen before. Behind the palace stood a tower that seemed to be molded into the very rock of the mountainside. It rose above the valley floor nearly five hundred feet.

We walked our horses from there, fearful that armed guards would pour out of the palace and surround us. None came. Even as we entered the outer palace walls, we were only greeted by sounds of birds. Nothing was out of place or overgrown. It was as if the palace was abandoned yesterday.

Leaving our horses in the courtyard, we walked through the pristine palace and up into what could only have been Thyria’s chambers. There we found hot and cold running water, furniture that gleamed in the sunlight streaming through the windows and double doors of the balcony that overlooked the valley.

“How can this be, Karack?”

“I have no idea. I feel like I’ve travelled back in time.”

“Did you see the clothes? The fabrics are incredible and they’ve not deteriorated. I expect at any moment someone will come out and tell us we shouldn’t be here.”

“And yet we’ve seen no signs of human life anywhere in the valley. No horse tracks or footprints. Let’s go back downstairs and see if we can find the entry point to the tower.”

We moved back through the palace to the main foyer and worked our way in the general direction to the tower. We found the entrance behind a grand room that was lit from numerous stain glass windows. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling that could be lit with candles. Two large, heavy double doors were open leading into the base of the tower. Stairs curved upward to another platform. We quietly made our way up to the top of the stairs.

Cyelena gasped at what we both saw. Two skeletons were frozen in time with their hands grasping their throats. They were still dressed in warrior’s clothing with their weapons still on their hips. Before us was a doorway that had been damaged but was now open. Above the doorway were words written in the same ancient glyphs as the scroll we had found in Ashadale.

“Knowledge is the key.”

Cyelena stepped forward but I pulled her back.

“Careful, Cyelena. Legends tell us the tower is protected and by the looks of these two treasure hunters, they found out the hard way. The doors are open into the room beyond, so we must assume someone unlocked these doors before us. These doors have no key, but to the side there is a pedestal with a book on it.”

“You think these doors are booby trapped.”

“I’m sure of it.”

“What do we know of Thyria? Who would have designed these doors?”

“I think we can make some assumptions. Thyria was wealthy and she died before her wife.”

“Why do you think she died before her wife?”

“Assuming her body resides in the uppermost part of this tower, who would have gone to the trouble to put her there and protect her? Certainly, the kings of old didn’t wish to see this realm maintained. To me, this was an act of love.”

“You’re a hopeless romantic but it makes some sense. However, who built the tower for whom? Could it be that Thyria made the tower for her wife or the wife designed the tower for Thyria? True love would suggest they built it together so that whomever was left behind could visit their loved one.”

“All right. Then both would have to understand the ways to unlock the doors. Knowledge is the key. Look at the binding on the book. Knowledge and Lore of Dragons. Seems almost fitting. There must have been a small library downstairs where this book was kept. Inside these doors I can see thousands of scrolls and books.”

“Can you imagine the treasure hunters coming here thinking gold was behind these doors and they only found books?”

“That library is probably more valuable than gold anyways. Let’s keep going. The doors are open so I think it is safe. Just don’t touch anything.”

I took the lead and moved through five floors of books and scrolls. It was like a vertical library. We came to another set of doors and another skeleton of a warrior.

“Looks like the end of the road for treasure hunters. What does it say above the door?”

“Dragon’s breath.”

“There’s another pedestal. It almost looks like someone tried to burn a book there.”

“Dragons breathe fire. It was a valiant effort.”

“The warrior tried to use fire to open the doors, how can we do any better?”

I looked around the room and found nothing that made sense. I knelt and tipped my head.

“What are you doing, Karack?”

“Praying to Kassinia. Thyria was a devoted believer. We’ve already seen evidence Thyria truly existed. I have to believe Kassinia exists and can guide us.” I paused only to have Cyelena kneel next to me and she took my hand in hers. “Kassinia, we humbly come to you today to ask for guidance. Our world is once again threatened by the Darken Horde and Thyria’s bow may lead us to victory. I’ve never been devoted or prayed to you before, but I beseech you. Help us to find our way.”

I went to stand but Cyelena pulled me back down next to her. “Kassinia, you know I’ve never asked you for anything before, but I pray to you as the Goddess of love to help us both, for I love Karack and wish to spend my life with him.”

We waited patiently. There was no flash of light, no spark, no booming voice from the sky. Just silence. “Maybe we’re unworthy.”

Just then a torch burst into flames. The flames were bluish white in color.

“She heard us, Karack. Use the torch on the pedestal.”

I pulled the torch from the stand and moved towards the pedestal, but I felt such dread. “It’s too easy.”

“It’s a sign. The torch and fire and the pedestal.”

“Stand back just in case something happens.” I waited for Cyelena to move away from me before bringing the flame of the torch to the door handles. There was a click and the doors opened.

“You’re brilliant, Karack!”

“No. Not brilliant. I just thought of how I would protect you if you died. I wouldn’t use the same system on every door. Something is guiding me, Cyelena. I feel like Kassinia is guiding me.”

“Let’s hope that’s the last set of doors then.”

The room before us was dark, but as we entered torches burst into flames and gold glittered everywhere. It was a treasure trove beyond compare. “Don’t touch a thing, Cyelena.”

“But why?”

“There must be another set of doors. What’s more valuable than any of this?”

“True love.”

“Put yourself in Thyria’s place. She rejected the world to be here with her wife. Gold was meaningless to her. It was true love. If we touch these items, it shows we love it more than anything else.”

“Then let’s not keep Thyria waiting.”

We moved upwards through many floors, passing through more libraries and well-appointed rooms. There were rooms of jewels and one filled with wines. As we reached the top of the tower, we came to another set of doors. These were far more elaborate than the previous doors and inlaid with gold and jewels.

“Only the right hand can enter.”

I thought it was pretty obvious but Cyelena pulled me back as I reached for the door.

“Let me do this. What if the right hand means the correct type of hand. In a male dominated world, Thyria might just have decided only a female hand could open the door. A female left hand, where the ring would go.”

“I don’t like it. You’re putting yourself at risk.”

Cyelena didn’t wait but grabbed the handle with her left hand and at her touch the doors swung open. We both stood in awe at the sight before us. In a large room flooded with the last rays of sunlight, two marble platforms stood in the middle of the room. They were so close together that they nearly touched. On one platform rested the perfectly preserved body of Thyria.

Our steps echoed loudly through the room as we stepped forward. Cyelena was beautiful, but Thyria was beyond stunning. Her red hair was fanned out framing her perfectly tanned face. Her lips were full and perfect for kissing. She was clothed in the sheerest of red silk. In her left hand was a beautifully wrought wooden bow with a golden hand grip and glyphs carved into it. A golden ring with a solitary diamond remained on her wedding finger.

Cyelena caught her breath. “She’s stunning.”

“Our legends don’t do her justice.”

“She planned to lie here for all eternity with her wife. It’s the only reason why two platforms were built so close together. What love they must have shared.”

I moved closer to the bow and began reading the inscriptions. “Bearer of the bow… Gift of Kassinia… Represents her…” I paused. “There’s much more but I can’t read it as they glyphs go under the bow. Please forgive me, Thyria.”

I expected Thyria’s body to be cold, but it wasn’t. I gently moved her fingers from the bow and lifted it. I felt a surge of power, a spark. My breath ripped from my lungs and the room spun. I tried to release the bow, but my fingers wouldn’t let go. I was dying and the world became dark.

***

“Karack?”

I could hear Cyelena’s frightened voice and I felt her presence near me.

“Karack? Can you hear me?”

She was frantic and I fought to open my eyes.

“Karack? Is it you?”

My eyes opened suddenly but I could barely move. We were still in the upper chamber of the tower. Cyelena was hovering over me, afraid to touch me.

“I’m…” That’s not my voice. I closed my eyes and tried again. “I’m…” My voice is wrong. It’s higher pitched, melodic, gentle. It’s the voice of a woman.Fighting my growing confusion and concern, I squeaked out a few words. “It’s me. Karack.”

“By the gods! Karack!”

“What happened?” I slowly regained control of my body, but it wasn’t my body at all. Each movement caused my body to shift unnaturally and me to look at the offending body part. I was changed. Bumps rose from my chest and I began to hyperventilate. “I’m… I’m a girl?”

“I saw you grab the bow and then you collapsed. You changed before my very eyes. Thyria… She’s vanished! Are you hurt?”

“I… I don’t feel hurt.”

“Can you get up? I’m afraid to touch you.”

I struggled a little, but quickly found my balance and stood. Looking down I could see just how much I was changed. Breasts, large breasts pressed my shirt outward and felt heavy. Long golden hair fell in front of my eyes. My hands were delicate looking but I had been small before.

I was still holding onto the bow. Shaking, I awkwardly moved to the platform where Thyria had lain and placed the bow there. Nothing happened. I didn’t change back.

Cyelena came to stand near me. Her hand was shaking as she quickly touched my fingers and pulled away. With no ill effect, she reached out and touched my cheek.

“Karack? Is it really you?”

“It’s me. I must have triggered some magical trap.”

The room lit up with a flash of light. Before us stood a beautiful woman shimmering in the dying light of dusk. “It was no magical trap, Karack. You both prayed to me and I heard your prayers. I guided you here. The world needs a hero as the Darken Horde arises once again. You took my bow that I had given to Thyria. The bow accepted you, Karack, and as this bow is a representation of my love for humans that now seem to spurn me, the bearer of this bow must represent me.”

“But I’m a woman. Can’t you change me back?”

“I answered both your prayers. No, Karack. I can’t change you back. I give you a new name. Arya Desini. You are my daughter and I will guide you.”

“I can’t live as a woman.”

“You have no choice in the matter, Arya. What is done is done.”

“I must be dreaming.” My mind screamed at me as it tried to sort reality from fantasy.

“Calm yourself, Arya.”

A wave of peacefulness washed over me. I felt my breathing relax.

Cyelena dropped to her knees. “Forgive me, Kassinia. Was it my prayer that did this to Karack?”

“There is no need to kneel before me, Cyelena. All things have come together as they should be. You are not to blame. I’ve searched the world for someone of the right heart and courage that can face the challenges ahead. I’ve been watching you both for some time, guiding you to this place.”

I was calmer now, but I still stared at my hands and at the strange vision of a goddess before us. “Can you heal Cyelena’s memories of her uncle and cousin?”

Kassinia smiled. “There are many with courage and heart, Arya, but so few exhibit true love like you. This is what first drew me to you. Even with your transformation you still wish to protect Cyelena. Unfortunately, our past defines our future. Erasing Cyelena’s memories would change the person that she is.”

Cyelena had stood once again. “What happened to Thyria?”

“When the bow was taken by Arya the magic that bound Thyria here left and her body was released.”

I was standing before a goddess and yet I was distracted by my pants pinching me at my hips. I pulled absently at them.

Kassinia turned her gaze towards me. “Those clothes won’t do. Below there are clothes that will fit you, but you will need something for battle.” With a wave of her hand my clothes were replaced by green and gold boots, skirt, and top. On my hands and arms were leather bracers trimmed with gold that left my fingers uncovered, but also formed as a partial glove. On my back was a quiver full of arrows.

I could now see my shape much more defined and I gasped.

Before either of us could speak again, Kassinia stepped forward to Cyelena. “When the time is right, I approve of you.” Turning to me, she kissed me on my forehead. “My daughter, Arya. You no longer belong to the world of men, but to me. While you live, this will always be your home. My powers maintain it and the valley beyond. The Darken Horde are rising and even now the human fighters struggle against the ever-increasing new beasts of the Horde. You must travel to Thunder Mountain and force Tyr’gon the dragon to yield to you. You are humanity’s only hope.”

“How can I do this as a woman?”

I felt Kassinia’s hand touch my cheek. “You are my daughter. You have a heart of compassion and love, the courage of a lion, and the wisdom of the gods. You are more capable than you realize. But know this. You are still mortal.” She turned back to Cyelena. “My daughter needs you more than you will ever know.”

“My father…”

Kassinia frowned. “While his seed spawned you, he was never a true father. You are my daughter now. The laws of men don’t pertain to you any longer. Be well. I will be watching you both.”

I had so many questions but in a flash of light, Kassinia was gone leaving Cyelena and me alone once again.

I held my hands in front of me and stared at them. “Is this real?”

Cyelena slipped her hand into mine and pulled my long golden hair back from my eyes. “It’s real, Arya, daughter of Kassinia.”

***

I was in a daze as Cyelena took the bow from the marble platform and led me by hand back down through the tower and to the bedroom. Vaguely I remembered her pulling the quiver off me and gently laid me down in the bed.

I woke quickly, feeling energized. It had all been nothing more than a dream. However, my first movement to sit up caused my breasts to shift and I realized I was still a woman.

Looking around the room, I spotted Cyelena sleeping on the floor close to the bed. She had recovered one of our bedrolls. I had no heart to wake her. I got out of bed and caught a hint of movement to my left. At first, I was stunned to see a beautiful woman standing there, but as my mind recognized what I saw was a reflection in a mirror, I was drawn to the mirror like a moth to a flame.

Before me stood Thyria’s golden-haired twin. Her long golden hair fell in waves down to her lower back. Her eyes were as blue as the purest sapphire. Her tanned face and skin was flawless and her full lips begged to be kissed. My hand reached for the reflection and once again my mind registered this was a mirror and I wasn’t looking at Thyria. Looking down at the tops of my breasts, my hands went to them if for no other reason than to prove by touch they were real. Slowly, my fingers slid over the clothing that covered me, down from my breasts, across my flat stomach, to feel the absence of anything between my legs.

I could still feel the peace from Kassinia, but my mind still churned. This can’t be me. I know nothing of being a woman. Yet, I liked what I saw. I felt a little taller than I had been and there was strength in my muscles. That I was beautiful was without question.

I had been the son of a king. A disgraced and homely young man that was spurned and rejected at every opportunity. Now I was the daughter of Kassinia.

As I stared at my reflection, Cyelena’s pretty face appeared next to mine. “You’re incredibly beautiful, Arya. I still struggle with all that has happened. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.”

“My mind is rather numb. You slept on the floor. You should have been in the bed.”

Cyelena blushed. “It wouldn’t be right.”

As I turned to fully look upon Cyelena I realized I still loved her. Nothing in me had changed. She had been several inches taller than me and now we were the same height. I could stare directly into her eyes.

“When you look at me like that, I can still feel you’re the same person, but you’re a woman now.”

“This body is different, but I’m still me inside, Cyelena. I still love you.”

Cyelena bit her lower lip and leaned forward. Her lips gently pressed against mine. I felt my lips tingle as heat rushed through my body. Cyelena slowly pulled away. Her breathing was quick and shallow. Her eyes sought mine. “I’m not afraid any more, except that if you have no desire to be with me.”

All my yearnings threatened to overwhelm me. The woman I had loved all my life was standing before me as frail as a fawn. Taking her hand in mine, I pulled her to me and kissed her ignoring that I was now a woman. My love for Cyelena was far greater than any other thing in my life.

***

For the next few hours I had completely forgotten that I wasn’t born this way. My entire focus was Cyelena and loving her as tenderly as I possibly could. She, in turn, showed me what being a woman was all about. Lying in bed with my head on Cyelena’s shoulder and her arms wrapped around me, was almost as glorious as the multiple times she had brought me to… I smiled and snuggled into Cyelena’s embrace.

I felt her lips kiss me on top of my head. “I could stay here forever with you.”

I tipped my head up so our lips could meet. Oddly, I felt different. No longer did I feel a need to prove myself. I knew more than anything I needed Cyelena in my life. I felt vulnerable and concerned for my future. “I have always loved you, Cyelena. Now I know I cannot live without you. I’ve given you my heart completely. Every piece of me you own.”

“Kassinia was right. She answered my prayers in a way I didn’t expect. I can’t envision a future where I’m not with you. I wasn’t fearful of your touch. It was the most glorious experience of my life. I just hope you’re able to live as a woman.”

“I’m still confused and frightened. I’m taller, so that’s a good thing. Knowing what happened to you, I’m afraid for myself. I think I could be fine living here with you away from the world of men. However, sooner or later the Darken Horde will destroy this world if they aren’t stopped. Even though my father and the world rejected me, I feel an obligation to fight. I need your support more than ever.”

“I’m not leaving your side. Where you go, I’ll go.”

“I’m still keeping my promise to you. I’ll make sure you’re happy.”

“Happy? I’m ecstatic. I always had a thing for pretty women, but after my uncle and cousin, I found it hard to be alone with any man, even you who was nothing other than respectful and caring. I always had a fear and now that’s gone. Not my fear of men, but the thought I would never meet someone I could love and cherish both for who they were but also their body. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, crafted by the very hands of Kassinia. I love you, Arya.”

I rolled out of bed and anxiously dug through my clothes that Kassinia had provided. “It’s not here!”

“What’s not here?”

“Your ring. The one we bought in Ashadale. You threw it away and I retrieved it.”

“Your sentiment is touching, but I don’t need a ring to prove I’m yours. Besides, there’s bound to be a ring in all that treasure in the tower. Can I suggest something?”

“Of course.”

“Let’s save the world first. I have plans for you after that.”

“Plans?”

“Yes. Secret plans. Good plans. Can I suggest something else?”

“Anything.”

“The clothing Kassinia gave you is regal and wonderful for battle, but we’re not fighting anything right now. We need to get you in some other clothes because otherwise I’m too tempted around you. Can I find you an outfit from the wardrobe?”

“You mean a dress?”

“Do you have any other clothes in your pack you could wear?”

“No.”

“Then the closet filled with dresses is the place to start.”

“I can’t wear a dress.”

Cyelena smiled as she slipped into her clothes. “I’m fine with you running around naked while we’re alone, but I’m never sharing you with anyone. Besides, I think you’ll like wearing a dress.”

Cyelena dragged me into the closet and rummaged through items until she selected a white dress and shoes. Sighing, I slipped them on and was surprised at how comfortable the dress was. I wouldn’t admit it to Cyelena though.

“That looks amazing on you.”

Cyelena had certainly been the aggressor earlier in bed and she didn’t seem to want to give that role up anytime soon. Cyelena pulled me into her arms and kissed me passionately.

I practically melted in her embrace. “Mmmm. Save the world, save the world, save the world…”

“What are you doing?”

“Reminding myself that humanity is on the brink of destruction so that I won’t succumb to this body’s desires.”

“I love it.” Cyelena took my hand in hers. “Where do we start?”

“The bed?”

“No, silly. Where do we start saving the world?”

“Thunder Mountain. We need to find its location.”

“Sounds like we need to go to the library then. Thyria’s information is most likely the best source.”

Cyelena pulled me back through the palace and back to the tower. My emotions were all over the place. I was so happy about being able to be with Cyelena, anxious about living as a woman, terrified about facing a dragon and fighting the Darken Horde, and confused as to how good I felt with the subtle movements of my body. Last night, I had descended the tower in a daze. Today I felt every nuance of my hips and breasts, and how my hair felt against my back. Even the hem of the dress brushed against my thighs and the cool air around my legs felt unique and different.

We stopped on the first floor of the library and looked around. At one point Cyelena let go of my hand and disappeared amidst the shelves. As I stood there alone I began to panic. My breathing quickened and that moved my breasts up and down reminding me of what I now was and did little to assuage my fears of being alone. I’m a woman and strange as it seems, I have such a desire to be protected. My emotions began to get the better of me. I grew frantic in my search for Cyelena, finally finding her looking over some books on shelves. I ran to her side and took her hand in mine instantly making me feel better.

“I like that, Arya.”

“I’m not sure what’s going on with me. I just need you near me.”

Cyelena moved a few stray hairs from my eyes. “I’m not surprised. Growing up female, I’ve had a lifetime to get over my fears and dealing with the emotions my female body sends me. Instantly you’ve become a woman and everything you know about yourself has vanished. You were confident with who you were and now it’s all new.”

“I should be your protector and yet I’m feeling like I need your protection. Doesn’t that make you think less of me?”

“Not at all. You’ve been there for me all my life. Now it’s my turn to be there for you. If anything, it’s endearing and if I’m honest, I enjoy your attentiveness and the chance to grow a little myself. All my life I’ve been frightened and now, seeing you, I’m finally seeing a spark of courage within me. I have such a desire to keep you safe.”

“You don’t think I’m being clingy?”

“One day I envision you standing tall and proud speaking with authority to kings and not needing me there beside you, but secretly, I hope you always feel somewhat insecure so that I can take care of you.”

I smiled and leaned into her, surprised at how good it felt to be the new me. “I saw a desk that might have a ledger or index. Come with me?”

“You do realize the more I’m next to you the less resolve I have?”

“Then let’s find what we need quickly.”

The ledger turned out to be a very detailed index of all the volumes in the library. I traced the careful handwriting with my fingertips and imagined Thyria writing it. She had been very exacting in her methodology and cross-referenced information by category and date. I searched for maps and that led us to a section on the second floor, where we found a detailed map of the mountainous region. East of us, towards Dedfast, was a tall mountain labelled Thunder Mountain. It was close to us as the bird flies, but we would have to move south through the valley, then over a pass to the east and then north up another long valley.

As if to emphasize the danger, a shadow momentarily blocked the sunlight coming through the windows of the tower. That was followed by a roar that shook the ground and echoed through the valley. We heard the horses and we ran through the tower and out of the palace just in time to see an enormous dragon swoop down and snatch one of our horses from the meadow. With one bite, the horse was split into two. In shock, we watched the dragon thrust downward with its enormous wings and fly up and over the mountains.

We moved the remaining spooked horse into a protected area in the palace. Cyelena and I walked back towards the bedroom.

“You don’t have to do this, Arya. We can live here in peace. We have everything we need.”

“If I don’t try, then we will eventually have to fight the Darken Horde ourselves. We need that dragon and Thyria did it. She figured out a way.”

“I have everything I ever wanted and maybe I’m being selfish, but I’d rather have months or a year with you rather than see you killed by that dragon.”

“I want what you want, Cyelena. I have no desire to face that dragon, but there must be a way. The library might have more information on dragons. Maybe Kassinia can guide us. I don’t believe she would have brought us here and given us a life only to dash it away because there’s no hope.”

“Perhaps this will help you.”

We turned to find Kassinia standing there with a small but thick leather-bound book in her hand.

Cyelena bowed and I followed suit.

“There is no need to bow to me. There is little time to waste and time is the very thing that is against us. Over five hundred years have passed since Thyria defeated the Darken Horde. In that time the dragons have all but vanished from the world. Writings have become lost or damaged and little information remains. If you are to succeed, I need to help you with two things. This is Thyria’s journal from before she was given the bow up until her death.”

“Does it describe her encounter with the dragon?”

“It does.”

“Why can’t you with all your power destroy the Darken Horde?”

“The gods are not of this world. We can only work through mortals and creatures of this place. I led you here to the bow and I will continue to guide you as I can.”

Cyelena took my hand and looked straight into Kassinia’s eyes. “I won’t give Arya up to be killed.”

“That is not your choice, Cyelena. The wheels are in motion and the Darken Horde advance. If Arya cannot make Tyr’gon yield, humanity, Arya, and you will die.”

“That’s unfair! You’ve turned Karack into a woman and expect her to be everything Thyria was overnight?”

“The transformation wasn’t as complete as it could have been and there exists a dichotomy within Arya. You’re correct, Cyelena. It is unfair which is why I’m offering Arya the chance to choose one of two options. I can remove from Arya every memory of her being male. She would be as if she were born female. The other option is for me to leave her alone with her memories intact.”

“I wouldn’t ever remember being Karack before? The strangeness of this new body would be gone?”

“Yes.”

“And the love I have for Cyelena?”

“Your life would be as if you grew up as a girl. You would have no fondness for women. However, you would be free to fulfill your actions without the distraction of your mind or body giving you a higher chance of surviving what is to come.”

Cyelena grew angry. “If she chooses this option, she might live, but she will no longer love me. What kind of option is that?” Cyelena threw her hands up in the air before turning to me. “There is no person I love more than you, Arya. I’ve always loved you. Though it pains me, I would rather you have the best chance at living and lose your love than to know my selfishness killed you.”

I took Cyelena’s hand in mine and stared at Kassinia. “You already know my answer.”

She nodded.

“There is no choice. I must accept who I am now with all my memories of what I used to be, because without Cyelena and my love for her, I would perish anyways. It’s my love for her that will give me the strength to fight on, knowing that my actions will allow her to live and give us a chance at a future together.”

Kassinia handed me the book. “I’m sorry to have offered you the choice, but it was needed to firmly set your resolve. It’s not an easy life being a woman, Arya. You will continue to struggle at times, but you understand what is at stake.”

“I’m afraid I’m losing myself. I need Cyelena. I need her touch and her comfort.”

“You’re not losing yourself, you’re finding yourself. Search your heart and you will find these feelings were always a part of you. Being a woman will allow those things you had buried deep within to come to the surface. These are part of your true identity and character which Cyelena fell in love with. Over time, you will truly love who you are and who you are becoming. Be well, my daughter.”

Kassinia vanished in another flash of light. Cyelena was crying and I hugged her close to comfort her.

“You would have given me up to allow me a better chance to live, Cyelena. The truth is, without you I have nothing to live for and I promised to make you happy.”

“You’re stuck with me now. You have no idea how much your love means to me.”

“I have a pretty good idea.”

***

We had spent the rest of the day reading Thyria’s journal and making love. My choice with Kassinia had been profound to my thinking and overall well-being. While everything still felt new and unique, and every move created new distractions, my mind was focused. There was no turning back and failure wasn’t an option. Each time Cyelena kissed me I was left with less and less desire to go back to the way things were. I noticed changes in myself and Cyelena. Kassinia said I was becoming more of who I really was and every moment as Arya I felt myself giving into the subtle desires to be held and comforted. As I shifted, Cyelena seemed to shift as well. She was becoming more protective, gentle, and loving towards me. I didn’t mind either of our changes as long as we both still loved each other.

Cyelena had taken it upon herself to recover the packs and sort through my old clothing. Together she and I examined the outfits, all dresses, and travel clothes we found and repacked everything for our journey to Thunder Mountain. We both decided to test my skills with the bow before we left and, to my surprise, I was amazing. The bow was stronger than my own used to be, but I could pull it back easier and even from the proving distance, I hit the bullseye every time. I felt quicker, more precise, and stronger than I ever was before.

Before we left, Cyelena led me upstairs in the tower to reset the locks and we paused in the treasure rooms for Cyelena to pick out a sword and shield. In her words, we were going to war and she refused to let me do the fighting alone.

I paused as we secured the last door. “I’m frightened of leave here.”

“Me too. Even the promise of an afterlife pales in comparison to this place. We can still stay, Arya.”

“And deny me the chance to sit behind you with my arms wrapped around you as we ride? Not a chance.”

“Why do you get to sit behind me?”

“I’m carrying the quiver. I’d like to stay here, but we need to try our best.”

Cyelena smiled and mounted our only remaining horse. She reached down and helped pull me up behind her. My arms wrapped around her and I kissed her neck before lying my head on her back.

“Mmmm. We’ll be travelling a little slower with one horse. Maybe we should camp at the hot spring and I can give you a bath?”

“Our world is about to end and my beautiful Cyelena is worried about my cleanliness.”

“Believe me, I’m not thinking about your cleanliness.”

It was quite a while before the bouncing of the horse and what it did to my body fell into a bit of a rhythm. I found pulling myself closer against Cyelena stopped my breasts from bouncing too much and the close contact made me feel safe. It was getting late when we reached the hot spring and I gladly dismounted for a chance to stretch my legs.

I gathered some firewood and got a fire going while Cyelena prepared the bedrolls and food. After eating, Cyelena slowly disrobed in front of me before taking the lead once again and removing my clothes. Having spent hours with my body pressed against the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, I was more that welcoming of her touch.

Taking my hand in hers she led us both to the spring. “I need to get back at you for making me so excited.”

***

Later that evening as we lay together in front of the fire, I read Thyria’s journal. I started just before Kassinia first appeared to Thyria.

Today I stared out from the castle ramparts, concerned for our city. The Darken Horde were close and every day more and more warriors returned from the battlefield with grave wounds and tales of huge, hideous beasts. As I turned away to head to my usual task of cleaning Kassinia’s temple, my eyes fell upon a vision of pure lovliness. Her name was Llylith and I realized at that moment that I was not like other women. I yearned for Llylith’s touch, a touch that was strictly forbidden.

I moved closer to Llylith and could see she was crying. She covered her blackened eye with her hand as she tried to go about her chores. I couldn’t help myself and I pulled her to the baths where I tended her as gently as I could. She told me how her husband, a man that had chosen her without her consent, had beaten her while he took her virginity. As I held her hand and stared into her eyes I knew I was forever lost. I ran to the temple and for the first time truly prayed to Kassinia to either free me of my desires or make it so that Llylith and I could be together.

It was foolishness, for I knew Llylith would never be free of her husband and likely never would harbor love in her heart for me. For days I prayed and each day I would catch glimpses of Llylith. Each day, her eyes would linger upon me a little more. One day I woke to find flowers and a note at my bedside. Llylith had written that I was the only person that had shown her compassion and kindness and she was thankful for me.

For the next few days I never saw her, but then she came to the temple as I was working. Taking my hand in hers, she pulled me to a private room, told me of her husband’s death, and did the unthinkable. She kissed me.”

I felt Cyelena’s lips on my neck. “I know how Llylith felt; being promised to a man that I wasn’t in love with but not able to be with the one I truly loved.”

Rolling over, I wrapped my arms around Cyelena and kissed her back. “It seems Kassinia has her ways of making things right.”

“Keep reading, Arya.”

“A week had passed and Llylith and I found as much time as we could together. We had given of ourselves and now I feared the worse. There was a lull in the war and men were returning. Llylith and I were both chosen by warriors that had killed Darken Horde beasts. We could do nothing but wait for the inevitable but the inevitable never came.

I was fervently praying in the temple, angry at Kassinia for answering my prayers for Llylith and then making it so that I couldn’t be with her. I was so angry in my prayers that I ignored the commotion of the people outside the temple. When I finally stood, before me was a wooden bow of remarkable design and finish. It had a golden grip and also a quiver. It was beautiful and it called to me. As I touched it, I felt a surge of energy course through my body. Then, in a flash of light, Kassinia was standing next to me. She told me she had heard my prayers and that my journey would be long and hard. She told me the world needed a hero and the only way Llylith and I could be together would be for me to save everyone. I needed to confront the dragon H’Lennorath at Thunder Mountain.

When she vanished, the temple doors exploded inward and Darken Horde beasts rushed inside. I feared for Llylith and used my bow to kill and push the Horde from the city. The king recognized it was my efforts that had saved the city and granted me a boon. I asked him to release Llylith and I from our marriage promises so that we were free to travel to confront the dragon. The king was angry, but with the people chanting my name as a hero, he was compelled to release us.”

Cyelena’s arms snaked around my body and pulled me against her. “We have a long ways to travel tomorrow. Sleep, my love.”

***

The next day we started early and climbed up into the snowy eastern pass. We moved as quickly as we could but the path was long and arduous. We began to descend into another valley where the heat of summer had begun to melt the snow and bring new growth to the stunted trees. Here we made camp amidst the snow and sparse vegetation.

We huddled together next to the fire for warmth and as darkness fell we once again heard the roar of a dragon. Pulling the journal from my cloak, I began to read.

“We had spent nearly a week travelling to Thunder Mountain, only to be challenged by wild animals and winter storms in the middle of summer. The path to the mountain was treacherous and steep. When we first saw the mountain, our hearts became heavy. Out of the rugged, sharp, snowy peaks, rose a mountain that appeared to smolder with heat. The black stone rose to incredible heights. Far above the valley floor, where no horse could go, a giant cave entrance taunted us.

I tried to convince Llylith to take the horses and head towards the coast, but she refused. There, at the bottom of the mountain, we promised ourselves to each other for whatever short time we had left. The next day we left our horses and carried our few belongings on our backs as we scaled the black mountain. Below it had been cold, but as we approached the cave entrance we could feel the temperature rising. What we thought would be a dark cave turned out to be a massive cavern lit by dragon fires.

What first caught our attention was all the gold. Small mountains of gold littered the cavern floor. The temptation was great to simply take gold, go back to our horses, and buy our freedom, but we knew any freedom we found would be short-lived with the Darken Horde already attacking the cities.

Readying my bow, we crept deeper into the cavern. We had both seen dragons before, but neither of us were prepared for H’Lennorath. He was a monstrous beast and his leathery wings easily spanned a hundred feet across. His fanged mouth could swallow a horse whole and his scales appeared like millions of glistening layered shields.

I had never really been a fighter before and strategy and tactics were not something I knew well. Trusting in my gods-given bow, I slipped out and around a pile of gold and fired an arrow into the shoulder of the dragon. I watched as the arrow penetrated deeply through the thick scales and H’Lennorath roared in pain. Fire erupted from his mouth singing my hair and where the fire touched the treasures, they melted.

‘You come at me with sticks! Show yourself mortal human!’

I was stunned that the dragon spoke but not foolish enough to present myself as a target. I rolled behind a stone pillar and shouted back.

‘Yield to me and I will show you mercy!’

The dragon spun and its tail smashed into the pillar I was standing behind. Great chunks of rock rained down all around me, but I rolled and fired another arrow into his left leg. H’Lennorath spun and thrashed, all the while roaring in pain and breathing white-hot fire. The ground shook with his movements and I fell behind a small pile of golden treasures.

By the time I got to my feet, H’Lennorath stood over me. I could feel the heat of its breath. I was doomed. But Llylith had grabbed a golden sword and struck the mighty dragon. As it turned to face her, I notched an arrow and shouted.

‘H’Lennorath! I have no desire to kill you for we need each other. My arrow is trained on your heart. Yield to me and I promise to release you once the Darken Horde are eliminated.’

With a snarl, his head turned back to me. There was great intelligence in his eyes as he registered his imminent death.

‘I yield.’”

“Thyria was lucky they weren’t both roasted alive. I’m sure there was much of the fight left out of her journal.”

“I’m sure Kassinia chose the right person, Arya. You must have confidence you’re everything this world needs in a hero.”

“Just days ago, I was a criminal, a young man, and hopelessly in love with the woman of my dreams knowing I could never be with her. Now, I’m a woman that’s been given Kassinia’s bow to challenge a dragon and save humanity from extinction. In a day, maybe two, I might be nothing more than ash and the world will never know or care.”

“At least you got the girl of your dreams.”

“I sure did. You have no regrets? You don’t think that one day you will find someone better?”

“That’s your female hormones talking to you. As women, we want to feel secure and safe. I know this has been hard on you and I’m telling you right now, that I’ll never love another. It’s you or nothing. It’s why I tried to kill myself. I couldn’t be with you nor could I ever be with anyone else. Kassinia answered my prayers and now I have you.”

“You don’t fear what might happen?”

“A little. You must understand that I’ve had more joy in my life these past days than I have in my entire life before this. I can go to my death knowing I found everything I ever wanted. Of course, I pray for a very long life with you, but I’m satisfied and content.”

“You have such a good way of looking at things, Cyelena.”

“What of you, Arya? Would you be content if you died right now?”

“Yes. I never would have thought I could be happy like this, as a woman, but I’ve never been happier. I can be me for the first time in my life. I’m no longer a prince. No longer must prove myself. No longer must I be belittled by my brother and father. I’m even in the arms of the person I’ve loved all my life.”

“I’ve noticed a change in myself, Arya. I’m not content to sit back and watch the world pass me by. You’ve shown me I can be strong and I have something to live for. I feel a fierceness inside me that grows every day. I’ll protect that which I love, which is you, or die trying.”

“Maybe it’s you that should be carrying the bow and saving the world?”

“I would to keep you safe, but I will never have your courage. Kassinia chose well. I have faith in you.”

Cyelena pulled the cloak over us a little tighter as a cool breeze drifted in. A cool breeze with the hint of dragon smoke.

***

It was early the next day that we rounded a bend in the valley and saw Thunder Mountain for the first time. Dark clouds had gathered around the black stone summit making it appear the mountain was on fire. Lightning seemed to strike the mountain every minute or so and that resulted in a steady stream of thunder. The steep mountainside looked impenetrable and dangerous. We could barely make out the cave with the cloudy mists hovering around it.

We rode through the day until we stopped at the mountain’s base. The ground felt warmer, but the air was still chilled. Cyelena stood by the fire and I snuggled up and into her arms. I felt frail and frightened; scared of what might happen less than a day from now.

“You’re very quiet, Arya. Quiet and cuddly.”

“Tomorrow…”

“Shhh… Tomorrow will come soon enough.”

Her lips were so tentative and soft as she brushed them against mine. Her fingers slid through my long hair and gently stroked my cheeks. She continued to kiss me as our tears fell from our cheeks. Slowly, her hands moved to my clothing and piece by piece she carefully removed them.

We shared of ourselves knowing that we might never get another chance.

***

I woke and dressed in the green and gold outfit Kassinia had given me. As quietly as I could I took the first steps up the mountain.

“Don’t you dare leave me here alone.”

“It’s too dangerous, Cyelena. If something happens to me you can go to Dedfast or back to the tower.”

“No. I’m not leaving you. I can’t live without you. We go together and die together if necessary. I know you’re brave and you just want to protect me, but we’re committed to each other, are we not?”

“Yes.” I stepped back down into her embrace.

It took a bit of time to get Cyelena ready and to set the horse free. We left behind what we didn’t think we would need so we could scale the mountain as easily as possible. We climbed throughout the day. It was steep, perilous, and arduous. Finally, we stepped onto the floor of the cave mouth.

We paused to catch our breath and we dared not look back down the mountainside. Our only safe way was forward and walking into a dragon’s den was certainly not safe. Looking ahead, the cavern wasn’t completely dark as there was an orange glow that ominously beckoned us.

“What if no one is home?” Cyelena whispered.

“Then we take the gold and leave?”

Cyelena giggled helping both our nerves settle.

We crept forward as stealthily as possible. Bits of gold and treasure had spilled out from the main cavern into the passageway we moved through. We were careful not to kick any, but it made me wonder just what the fascination with treasure and dragons was all about. Knowing if we lived through all of this and having access to the treasures in Thyria’s tower made the gold that was steadily increasing at our feet less distracting, but there was certainly a temptation.

We rounded a bend in the passageway and the cavern opened before us. Orange fires cast a flickering glow that glistened off heaps and mounds of gold. Stone outcroppings that seemed to be naturally formed rose up from the floor and also down from the ceiling. Some formed natural pillars where they met in the middle.

The cavern was empty and there didn’t appear to be any other way out. We heard a roar and the dragon’s heavy wings brought a gust of wind up the passageway towards us. We were trapped. Grabbing Cyelena’s hand, we dove behind a pile of treasure just as flames poured into the cavern. Had we been a second later, we would have been nothing but ash.

We could feel the heavy dragon’s footsteps as it moved into the cavern. We circled around a stone pillar keeping out of sight, but the pillar did nothing to hide the enormous creature’s body. Tyr’gon moved slowly over the piles of treasure as it circled the cavern looking for us. I was certain it knew we were here.

If anything, Thyria’s description of H’Lennorath had understated the sheer size of these dragons. Tyr-gon’s leather-like wings were unfolded across piles of gold. Golden, thoughtful, and ageless eyes sparkled in the firelight. Smoke emerged from the mouth and nostrils making delicate swirls around fangs that were half as tall as me. Tyr’gon was covered in shiny silver-blue scales that reminded me of polished heated metal. Razor-sharp talons cut grooves in the stone cavern floor as they shifted uneasily.

I pulled Cyelena back behind the pillar of stone and grabbed some gold pieces to silently map the room and indicate how we should enter. I tried to tell her to stay, but she simply shook her head and quietly drew her sword. Sighing first, then taking a deep breath, I nocked an arrow and rolled out behind a pile of treasure.

Tyr’gon knew we were there as it shifted uneasily and blew fire several times. When we were in position, I gripped the bow tightly, rolled in front of the great dragon but behind a large boulder, stood, and aimed the arrow at the dragon’s heart. Cyelena appeared with her sword raised next to me.

“Yield, Tyr’gon.”

“Be done with it, mortal. I recognize the bow of Kassinia.”

I kept the arrow trained on Tyr’gon’s heart. “I have no desire to hurt you. We need your help.”

“Before you even loosed your arrow, I could kill you both. Why should I help humans?”

As it spoke it shifted and brought its head closer to us. I could smell its breath.

“In the past, Thyria Grimsary worked with H’Lennorath to push back the evil forces of the Darken Horde. Work with us to do the same.”

“H’Lennorath was my mate and was taken from me. I’m the last dragon left. A dragon queen with no mate or other dragons to lead. Use your arrow and kill me now for I have no wish to aid humans in their foolish quests nor spend the rest of my lifetime alone.”

I lowered my bow but kept it ready. “Tyr’gon, the Darken Horde are once again enhancing their creatures for battle. Even now they move forward against a human army that can’t stand against them. Eventually they will come here.”

Tyr’gon’s head moved so close to me I was certain she was about to spew fire or snap me in two, but she didn’t. “What did you say?”

“The Darken Horde are coming.”

Her eyes closed a little as if deep in thought. “You spoke of the Horde enhancing their creatures. Is this true?”

“I’ve seen them with my own eyes.”

“There is only one way to enhance the Horde beasts. That is with dragon’s blood. If there is a chance another dragon lives, then it is my duty to see it freed.”

“Work with us, Tyr’gon. Help us drive back the Darken Horde and if we discover there is indeed another dragon that has been enslaved by the Darken Horde, we will work together to free your kind.”

“What is to stop you from killing me once our alliance is completed?”

“I would give you this bow, the only bow known in this world capable of penetrating a dragon’s armor. I would place it here amongst your treasures so that no human could ever use it against the dragons again.”

“You would give up the one weapon that keeps dragons in their place?”

“You’ve tracked Cyelena and me for days. You said yourself you could kill us at any time and yet you haven’t.”

A low chuckle sounded from Tyr’gon that pushed additional smoke from its mouth. “Dragons are no threat to humans unless we are provoked. But your horses… They are a nice, tasty treat.”

“Yes. I would give you my bow when this is all done.”

“What happened to the male that travelled with Cyelena?”

“That’s a bit of a long story. The bow was given to Thyria by the Goddess Kassinia. When I took the bow, I was transformed into someone that would represent Kassinia.”

Another chuckle. “Females are better anyways.”

I lowered my bow completely. “You agree to work with us?”

“The last time humans and dragons worked together wasn’t an alliance. H’Lennorath yielded. I refuse to yield but I will work with you. What is your name?”

“Arya.”

“Dragons and humans tend not to mix well, Arya.” Tyr’gon nudged a golden horn with her massive foot. “Take the horn. When you need me, blow the horn and I will come to you.”

“We’re far from where we need to be and we are running out of time. Can you take us to Venalleigh so we can learn what has transpired with the Darken Horde since we left?”

“I can fly you both there.”

I reached up and touched the dragon’s massive cheek. “Thank you, Tyr’gon.”

She lowered her head. “Climb on, Arya and Cyelena. I suggest you hang on tightly.”

We climbed up and unto Tyr’Gon’s neck, just in front of her massive shoulders and wings. I could feel her muscles, more solid that the strongest steel roll under her scales. Two bony protrusions extended from her neck allowing me to grip with my hands while my feet found notches in her scales. Cyelena sat behind me and hugged herself close.

“We’re ready.”

Tyr’gon crouched and crawled forward through the passageway to the cavern mouth before thrusting her wings downward and launching us into the sky. She arched and dove downward just feet above the mountain’s face. The wind buffeted us and the freefall was terrifying. At the last moment, Tyr’gon roared and spread her wings once again to level off and fly south at a quick pace.

What had taken days of travel was covered in mere hours and soon we were flying over the towers and ramparts of Venalleigh. There was much commotion about us and Tyr’gon from the citizens of the city and palace. We could see many warriors there as well.

“With all the warriors at the city, that can’t bode well for how the far north the Darken Horde have come. Fly further south. Let’s see if we can find out where the Darken Horde are.”

We banked and turned and not more than a few miles from Venalleigh, humans and the Darken Horde battled. Three large Horde beasts using massive clubs looked undefeatable as they plowed forward. Their skin looked to have scales on it and arrows and swords bounced harmlessly off them.

“Tyr’gon. Fly steady towards one of the beasts. I’ll shoot one with my bow.”

We banked again and I let go of the bony protrusions and squeezed tight with my thighs. Nocking an arrow, I leaned over and as we flew close, I let the arrow fly. The arrow flew straight and true, plunging through the heavy scales and into the heart of the Horde beast. We watched as the beast paused, grabbed futilely at the arrow, and collapsed face first into the dirt.

“Now, it’s my turn, Arya. Hang on.”

As soon as I put my bow away, we banked hard and dove towards one of the Horde beasts from behind. Tyr’gon grabbed the creature like it weighed nothing and while it shredded the beast with its talons, he turned and breathed fire out on the third great beast. She flew up and over the cheering human front line, tossing the shredded remains of the other beast to the ground.

Cyelena, who had been quiet ever since the cavern whooped for joy. “Now that’s an entrance.”

I felt her lips on my neck as I asked Tyr’gon to set us down at the city gates. People backed away in fear from us as I hopped to the ground and helped Cyelena down. Tyr’gon stretched her head towards us. “I will scout ahead and determine where the Horde is coming from. Call for me.”

I stroked her cheek with my hand. “Thank you. We’ll find their source and your kin.”

Cyelena and I stepped back as Tyr’gon flew up and away. Needless to say, there was a rather large contingency of warriors, citizens, and guards around us by the time we turned towards the city.

“Thyria has returned to us!”

They were shouting and cheering and I was tempted to not say anything, but Cyelena would have none of it. “Thyria has not returned for she has long passed into the afterlife. Arya Desini is your savior today.”

It was then that I saw Thaen push through the crowd. He pointed at Cyelena. “Treasonous promise breaker! Where’s that low-life brother of mine?”

He stepped forward and I drew my bow to stand between Cyelena and Thaen. “Now is not the time to play prince, Thaen. Cyelena is needed for more important things than your bed. I suggest you take us to Jaord, your King, so that we can discuss strategy against the Darken Horde.”

There was something dark and sinister in Thaen’s eyes as he looked me over. “Arya, is it?”

I nodded.

“You know my name. I’m not surprised. Come with me.”

I lowered my bow and Cyelena leaned in to me as we headed towards the palace. “Thank you, my love. Everything is happening so fast.”

I whispered back to her. “I’ve never felt so nervous. Tyr’gon is nothing compared to facing Thaen and father.”

“They don’t know who you really are. I suggest we make Karack out to be a hero, which is true.”

Crowds had gathered to see us pass. I was shaking and nervous. This was the first time anyone had seen me as a woman and I was frightened from all the stares of the men. Thaen pushed through the crowds and ordered the guards to open the door to the throne room which had been repurposed as a war room.

I looked past Thaen to see kings and warriors huddled around a large table with maps. My father looked up, obviously upset at the intrusion.

“What is this? This is no place for women.”

“Father, Cyelena has returned and with her someone that controls a dragon. They killed the three Horde beasts before demanding an audience with you.”

“A dragon?”

“I’m surprised word hasn’t reached you yet. The city is erupting with celebration that Thyria has returned in our moment of need. Although she says she isn’t Thyria, but Arya.”

Father stormed past Thaen and stood over the two of us. “What’s the meaning of this? Last I heard, Cyelena, you and that worthless son of mine ran away. I’ve even had complaints that you left your uncle and cousin’s shop in disarray.”

Cyelena grew visibly angry. “You do Karack a disservice. He knew what was happening and you never listened to him. We left together to go to Ashadale where he believed there might be evidence of Thyria’s bow.”

“Yes, yes. He told me his story.”

“He found the bow.”

“Why isn’t he here then gloating?”

“Karack is a hero. He gave his life so you could all be spared. The bow was Kassinia’s, given to Thyria. By taking the bow, Karack’s soul was used to reanimate Thyria. Karack was killed, but Thyria was reborn as Arya Desini. Arya then stood courageously before Tyr’gon the dragon to form an alliance to save humanity from the Darken Horde. Without Karack’s sacrifice, the Horde would even now be at your door.”

That was quite the story, but it allowed me to truly be Arya without any baggage of my old life. I’d have to thank Cyelena very personally later.

Father laughed. “At least he proved good for something. I assume you’re still intact and that my son wasn’t man enough to bed you. Now that you’re back we can see to the wedding.”

I was furious. “We didn’t come here to be placed under the authority of any of you. Cyelena is now a citizen of Llynmera of which, I am Queen. Cyelena stood with me as we made the alliance with Tyr’gon and that being the situation, she is integral to the trust bond with have with the dragon queen. You will formally release her from your promise of marriage to Thaen, or we will take our alliance away from this place and let the rest of humanity deal with the Darken Horde on their own.”

There was something devious in my father’s eyes, but he nodded. “Agreed. I see no reason to wed my son to Cyelena. She is formally released in front of all these witnesses. What is it you want, Queen Arya?” He emphasized the word queen.

“Just because we have a dragon doesn’t mean things will go easy with the Darken Horde. We must be strategic and draw them into battle in locations that will allow Tyr’gon to maneuver well. Let’s review the maps and plan accordingly. We have also had many days of difficult travel. We would like an opportunity to refresh ourselves and we would appreciate some warm food.”

“Since I no longer must worry about my son returning, I’ll have the servants freshen up his room for your stay. Cyelena can use her old room.”

“No offense, your Majesty, but Cyelena must stay close to me if we must call Tyr’gon in protection of the city.”

“I’ll have extra bedding brought to your room then. As for food, I believe a celebration is in order. You will both join me at the head table tonight as we toast our future victory in your honor.”

Father whispered to Thaen, who took one last lustful look at me and left the room. Father then introduced us to the others in the room and we began reviewing the battle lines and locations of the Horde on the maps.

***

It was late in the evening when Thaen returned and led us to my old room. “The bedding has been cleaned and pressed. We can get the rest of my brother’s junk out of here tomorrow.”

“Please, leave it. I’m sure you wish to honor Karack’s sacrifice in some way.”

“My brother was a sniveling, self-centered boy, more girl than man. I remain skeptical as to how much you and your dragon can aid us. Karack’s sacrifice is only worth that which we receive from you.”

Cyelena bristled as did I.

“Feel free to indulge yourselves in the bath. I’ll send someone to retrieve you both in an hour.”

Thaen turned and left leaving us both together in my old room. We waited a while to make sure Thaen was well away before falling into each other’s arms.

“That was brilliant telling them the story of what happened to me. Although, I’m not quite sure I like the result. Their behavior makes me wonder if they’re even worth saving.”

“I’m sorry, Arya. No one deserves the treatment you were given. You were amazing in there speaking to your father and getting him to renounce my being pledged to Thaen. I loved it when you said you were Queen of Llynmera.”

Cyelena looked around my old room. “I’ve never been in here before.” She picked up a leather bracelet from a shelf. “That’s the bracelet I made you ten years ago. You kept it?”

“Why would I throw something away from the person I’ve cared for the most my entire life?”

Cyelena came over and kissed me. “Will you help me with my bath?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

***

We entered the main hall and looked over the vast array of tables. Father always made a show of everything and had his table on a raised platform above all the rest of the people to emphasize his status. I never cared for that much. We were escorted to his large table where the five other kings and their princes sat.

Father stood and welcomed everyone. “Today we won a decisive battle thanks to the arrival of some new friends. Arya Desini is the one that arrived on a dragon today. She bears with her Thyria’s bow and has agreed to aid us in pushing back the Darken Horde. We live in great times with new legends of tomorrow. Today, we eat and dance in celebration of our victory.”

There were cheers around the room and everyone stood and held up their glasses in a toast. Before we sat down, Cyelena was separated from me and placed on the opposite side of the table. Directly across from her were two people that caused her to look mortified.

Father came over to introduce everyone. “Cyelena, I thought you might appreciate me inviting your family. Your uncle and cousin both said they have missed you so very much. Arya, I want you to sit next to me. We have much strategy to discuss.”

A glance at Cyelena and it told me everything I needed to know. She was scared to death to even be in the same room with her uncle and cousin. Thaen sat across from me and I had father to my left. On my right was Cyelena’s uncle. We sat down and I leaned over to him. “I have a dagger in my boot. It would please me greatly to cut you and your son’s dangly bits off should you even look at Cyelena in any way that shows ill intent. I’m tempted to use it even now for the abuse you gave her. Don’t test me on this.”

The color drained from his face.

“Tell me, Arya, what do you think of my son, Thaen?”

I glanced at father thinking him totally insane. “Certainly, he has good looks and there is nary a shirt that could contain his large muscles.” Thaen sat up straighter and jutted his chin out. “Sadly, there are few women I know that would remotely be interested in him. You see his small thumbs? It is well known that a man with small thumbs have small… In any event, I doubt he could please anyone. I think you’re wise to keep him on the front line of battle instead of creating offspring.”

Thaen deflated angrily.

Father laughed hard as did everyone else at the table. “You have a remarkable gift of humor. I’ve never heard of Llynmera before.”

“Llynmera was the land promised Thyria by all the realms after the last Darken Horde uprising. My arrival reinstates that age-old realm.”

“I certainly didn’t make that promise to you and speaking for the other realms, I don’t believe they would suggest you now own a portion of their realms either.”

“I have my valley and my palace. It is all I need.”

“Where is your king?”

“There is no king.”

“Then you’re single. Might I suggest that we should discuss an arrangement? Aside from your humorous assessment, Thaen is very capable at pleasing a woman.”

“I suggest we speak about strategies for fighting the Horde and less about political posturing.”

“But Thaen…”

“I’ll make this perfectly clear. We’re at war with the Darken Horde and they are continuing to create new and larger beasts. I didn’t come here to bed a blithering imbecile whose brain deactivates every time something warm and female walks by him. There are sheep in the field if you can’t control your son. I’m not interested, nor will I ever be interested. I’m happy to talk strategy, but I’m offended at the match making references.”

“Arya?”

“Yes, Cyelena?”

“I’ve lost my appetite. Hospitality isn’t Venalleigh’s strong suit.”

One look at Cyelena and I was angry once again. She had practically wilted under the presence of her uncle and cousin. I stood and turned to my father. “I’ve heard many good things about your other son. I thought by coming to this realm first I would honor Karack’s sacrifice. We will meet you all in the morning. Good night.”

Leaning down, I whispered to Cyelena’s uncle. “If I ever see you within one hundred feet of Cyelena, I’ll order Tyr’gon to incinerate your homes. There is no good death for either of you for what you have done.”

By the time we got back to my room, Cyelena was crying and shaking. “I’m so sorry, Cyelena. Had I known, we could have found other accommodations.”

“What did you say to my uncle?”

“That I was tempted to cut off their special parts and if I ever saw them within one hundred feet of you I would have Tyr’gon incinerate their homes.”

Cyelena sniffed and threw herself into my arms.

“We shouldn’t have come here, Cyelena. It was a mistake. All we need to do is find the Darken Rites, rescue a dragon from the Horde, kill any enhanced beasts, and leave the rest of these crazy people to maintain balance.”

“As much as I hate being here with these people, I think we need to try to work things out. I hate how they malign Karack. I wonder if it would be different if they knew you were him?”

“I think it would be even worse except that my father wouldn’t necessarily want me to marry Thaen then. Everything to my father has always been about status, authority, and power. He thinks if I’m a queen that I have wealth and tying me to Thaen would grant him automatic access to whatever I have. He should never have been king.”

“He’s not your father any more. Kassinia calls you her daughter. Remember that. Remember that you don’t belong to him, you belong to me.”

That made me smile. “Let’s get some sleep.”

***

I had just fallen asleep when the door to my room burst open and slammed shut. Moonlight allowed me to see Thaen standing in the room.

“You little slut! You think you can belittle me in front of others? I’ll show you what it’s like to be with a real man!”

Thaen grabbed my ankle and yanked hard, pulling me from the bed and causing me to crash on the floor. My nightgown was barely covering me as he reached for it to tear it from my body.

I screamed out of fear.

Thaen’s hand grabbed my gown and yanked hard even though I hit him and kicked him. Before my nightgown was completely torn from my body, Cyelena’s sword pierced his thigh.

“Get out of here before I run you through!”

Cyelena was brave but she wasn’t a trained fighter. Thaen roared in anger, batted the shaking sword to the side and backhanded Cyelena into the wall where she crumpled unconscious. Rolling to the side of the bed, I grabbed my dagger. With one hand I held it out towards Thaen and my other hand held the tattered remains of my gown against me.

Thaen reached to grab a handful of Cyelena’s hair and I fought my frayed nerves so that I could move. Diving across the bed, I slammed into Thaen’s side and drove the point of my dagger into his side.

With another roar of pain, Thaen acted like any wild animal would have. He turned and swatted me aside like I was nothing more than a fly bothering him. I collapsed on the floor and as Thaen reached for me the pain of his wounds finally seemed to register on him. He clasped his side with his hands before pointing a bloody finger at me.

“You’re nothing but a worthless slut! You’re no hero! You’ll be even less without your bow to control the dragon.”

Thaen reached and grabbed my bow, but it sizzled in his hand and he screamed in additional pain. Dropping the bow, he limped from the room.

I crawled over to Cyelena and cradled her in my arms as I cried. I cried for Cyelena as much as I did for my own fear and shock. Cyelena had this happen to her multiple times and even though I was spared the indignity and the violation, I was left scarred and frightened beyond anything I had ever felt before.

Cyelena’s eyes fluttered open and she moaned, but her hands came to my cheeks. “Did he…?”

“No… You distracted him enough for me to get my dagger. These people deserve to die. How badly are you hurt?”

“I’ll have a nice bruised eye and a headache for a while, but I think I’ll be all right. Are you all right?”

“We’ll have matching black eyes then, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be all right.”

Cyelena shifted and pulled me to my feet. She grabbed her sword and started to change. “I’m grateful Thaen never… You’ll be in shock for a while and possibly fearful for the rest of your life around men. I found it helps to keep myself occupied. Let’s pack and tomorrow we’ll find another place to stay.”

Focusing on packing our few belongings did help, but I was still shaking badly and every sound coming from the hallway made me want to curl up in a ball. Cyelena tried to help me get to sleep for the few hours remaining until morning, but it was to no avail. Then, just before dawn, guards rushed into the room and dragged Cyelena and me down to stand in judgement before the king.

At this point, I should have expected this kind of treatment, but nothing these days surprises me. Thaen was sitting in a chair and looking pale and uncomfortable. He had lost a lot of blood, but just being in the room with him made me ill. Father was there and of course the guards with their drawn weapons blocking our only way out.

Father stood and stepped forward. “We invite you here, offer you our full hospitality, and this is how you repay us? By attempting to kill my son? Under any other circumstances you would be dead by now.”

Cyelena shouted her angry words as she pointed at Thaen. “That vile creature broke into our room and attacked Arya! Is he not man enough to speak the truth? He intended to rape Arya. Do you not see our injuries or realize his wounds are from us defending ourselves from his attack? Do you not think that Arya could have easily killed Thaen if she was inclined to do so? She easily killed the enhanced beasts of the Darken Horde.”

“Silence! For all I know you’re working for the Darken Horde. You will relinquish Thyria’s bow and your control of the dragon into my care and at dusk, you will both be put to death. That is unless you provide reparations for the crimes you’ve both committed.”

Cyelena continued to speak, her voice tinged with challenge. “Reparations? You want money? How much? A golden shield from the dragon’s den perhaps?”

“Gold is only part of what I want. I will claim Arya as my daughter and she will be under my care. All that she owns becomes my property and I will choose for her whom she will be married off to. She and her dragon will fight for us and when the war is over and we have declared victory, no king will stand in my way of ruling all the realms.”

Cyelena’s hands rolled into fists. “This was your plan all along; use Thaen’s overgrown libido to get you everything you want?”

“Guards. Lock them in their room and prepare the gallows for their execution at dusk.” He turned to us with a grim smile. “You have until then to decide your fate.”

I remained silent until we were locked back in my room. “I’m no hero, Cyelena. I can’t even stand up to my father.”

“Kassinia believes in you and so do I.”

“I’d rather die than be my father’s puppet.”

“He was never a father to you. What do you say we get out of here?”

“What do you mean?”

“No one can take your bow. It’s here. We also have the horn to call Tyr’gon. We can make a life for ourselves. We help Tyr’gon rescue the other dragon, then we retreat to Llynmera.”

“What about the Darken Horde?”

“Without the other dragon they can no longer enhance their beasts. We leave the rest of humanity to fend for themselves. They don’t deserve you.”

“You’re right. What has anyone done for us?” I felt guilty saying it, but I wasn’t in any condition emotionally to think clearly.

Strapping on my bow and quiver, I picked up the horn and blew it. The horn sounded loud and clear and moments later we heard the roar of Tyr’gon. Unfortunately, so did the guards and soon they were pushing their way into the room.

Cyelena had drawn her sword and I had an arrow ready to fire, but we were trapped in a corner and the guards knew it. They approached slowly and I was about to let the arrow loose when the wall next to the window shattered sending heavy stones into the room and knocking the guards down. The palace shook as Tyr’gon grabbed onto the wall with her powerful claws.

Her low rumbling voice was soothing. “I take it negotiations with Venalleigh didn’t work out the way you wanted.” She extended her neck so that it was just below the windowsill. “We have much to discuss. Climb on.”

We had just climbed out of the window and onto her neck when more guards came into the room as the others staggered to their feet. Tyr’gon released her claws and we fell towards the palace plaza. Her wings opened wide and we arched back up into the sky and circled back towards the mountains. We found a large meadow far away from people and landed.

“That was very good timing, Tyr’gon.” I hugged her neck and the dragon gave a slight purring rumble. I felt so safe with Cyelena and a dragon at my side. “What have you discovered?”

“Many leagues from here, the Darken Horde have their main city. While most of their fighters are away from the city, new, larger, more ferocious beasts are coming this way. Many enhanced beasts remain behind guarding the entrance to a large cavern. H’Lennorath, my mate, is trapped inside.”

“How do you know?”

“I can feel him.”

“What can we do?”

“The Horde have reduced the size of the opening of the cavern with large stone boulders. It would take the combined strength of H’Lennorath working on the inside, and me on the outside to free him. However, H’Lennorath will likely be bound.”

“Then Cyelena and I will need to get inside and free H’Lennorath.”

“It would be certain death for you. I can’t ask you to do this.”

“You promised to help us and we promised to help you. You’ve honored your promise to this point and I intend to honor ours. I’d like to think we humans are worth saving, but I’m not sure we are. I release you from your side of the alliance, but I wish to keep my promises to you.”

“What have they done to you, Arya?”

Tears began to fall down my cheeks once again. “It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is for us to free your mate.”

The great dragon nudged Cyelena. “And you, Cyelena?”

“I go with my mate, Arya.”

“The alliance between dragons and humans is dissolved for alliances can be broken and are created for a specific time. I extend to you both my friendship, a covenant that can’t be broken.”

I smiled and hugged her neck again. “I like that much better.”

***

Cyelena and I had left Venalleigh rather abruptly and neither of us had much to eat in a long time. We flew to the Finmer Lodge and we created quite the stir among the residents when Tyr’gon landed us in a field nearby. Once we were safely in the lodge, she flew off to not cause concern.

I opened the door for Cyelena and we received a warm welcome by the owner of the lodge and his daughter who served us. I didn’t recall seeing her the last time I was here.

“By the gods, we had heard Thyria has returned. You honor us.”

“I’m Arya. Thank you for welcoming us.”

“What is it you need?”

“We could use something to eat now and some provisions to take with us.”

“I’ll get our cooks working on that right away. Please, take a seat anywhere you like.”

We chose a seat with our backs to the wall and a huge man with a red beard sat down across from us. I recognized him from the last time I was here.

“People tell me you came in riding a dragon and that you’re a legend reborn.”

I turned to Cyelena. “Cyelena, this is Red.”

Red looked at me with a mix of pride and confusion. “How do you know me?”

“Doesn’t everyone know Red, the man that has more wisdom than all the ruling families combined. A friend of mine met you here once. He told me about what you two spoke about. He was filled with excitement to go to the Fields of Middlenden. You told him he wasn’t going to war, but to a contrived battle design to maintain balance and keep the king’s coffers full.”

“I never forget a face or a story. That was Karack, right?”

“Yes.”

Cyelena seemed to be enjoying the conversation. “Did you know Karack was a Prince of Venalleigh?”

Red’s eyes went wide. “That was Karack Redbeorn? I could have been locked up for my words.”

“Karack told me you were right.”

“First royalty I’ve ever known to have any good sense. What ever happened to him?”

I didn’t like talking about myself this way, but Cyelena had no problems with it. “Karack is why we’re here. When he was at the front, he saw the Darken Horde were creating enhanced beasts just as in the time with Thyria. Not only did he save the day in Middlenden, but he began a search for Thyria’s bow so that he could control a dragon.”

“The kid has guts.”

“More than you’ll ever know. He found the bow, but in doing so sacrificed his life so that Arya could be with us here today.”

Red’s eyes moved to the bow on my back. “Thyria’s bow?”

I nodded.

Red whistled low. “Looks like the two of you got into a fight.”

“We created an alliance with a dragon and came to Venalleigh to speak with the king. The king wasn’t too welcoming and last night Thaen attacked us.”

“Please tell me you killed that moron.”

“No. We’re both women and mortal and no real match for a man Thaen’s size. At least not up close without my bow in hand. We fought and he was wounded, but the king and Thaen used it against us. With no witnesses, they made it look like we tried to kill Thaen.”

“Let me guess. They wanted something from you.”

“Yes.”

The waitress returned with our food and Red pulled her down into his lap. “Griselda, did you meet these two fine ladies?”

The way they reacted to one another made it very clear to me. “You two are a couple?”

She smiled. “We are. Married for three years now. Don’t let the bushy beard fool you. Red is the kindest man I’ve ever met. While the kings take from us to fund their war, Red hunts and brings food to the starving families in the area.”

I felt foolish suddenly. “Why do you do it?”

“I’m not sure where you grew up, but out here, away from the politics of the cities and palaces is where the real life is. There is a true sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. It’s the best of humanity and I want to give back wherever I can.”

I looked down and Cyelena found my hand under the table. She spoke for us both. “You think people are worth saving from the Horde?”

“I heard about the new beasts and how our forces have fallen back. It’s why I’m here today. I’ve come to take up my sword. The threat from the Horde is real now and I need to protect my growing family.” He placed his hand of Griselda’s belly.

Griselda leaned forward. “You and the dragon will fight for us?”

“We’re not sure. We travel to the heart of the Darken Horde lands to stop the source of the new beasts. There’s a very real chance we won’t return.”

Red stood and thumped his hand down on the table. “Men! I’ve left this up to each of you to decide for yourself if you will fight the Darken Horde. These two courageous women are going deep into Horde lands to stop the flow of beasts coming our way. The very least we can do is fight to slow the tide of battle on the front line.”

Twenty men stood and shouted in agreement.

Cyelena wiped a tear from my cheek. “You’ve changed your mind, haven’t you?”

“There is still goodness left in this world after all. Good men too.”

Red sat back down. “I admire the courage you both have. Sometimes I wish I had chosen a different path so that I could have made a bigger difference in people’s lives.”

“Don’t we all? All we can do is look forward and try the best we can.”

“Well spoken, Arya. Well spoken.”

***

The owner of the Finmer Lodge refused to let us pay for our food and provisions. They all came out and watched us call Tyr’gon and fly off towards Baladon, the largest city deep in Darken Horde territory. Red said he would spread the word and gather additional forces and head towards the front lines nearing Venalleigh. He even gave Cyelena some pointers on how to use her sword.

We stopped for the night atop a tall mountain that looked down upon the city of Baladon. Here, ash filled the air and fell like snow upon the scorched and abused land. The fires of the Darken Horde cast an eerie glow in the darkness.

As we settled in for the night with expectations of reaching the cavern mouth before the first rays of morning, a flash of light heralded Kassinia’s arrival. Tyr’gon tipped her head towards the goddess as if they had known each other a very long time.

Kassinia moved to me and gently touched my blackened eye. I could feel it healing. “My daughter, you are attempting a very dangerous task. Don’t give up on humanity.”

She turned to Cyelena and healed her bruises as well. “Your sword just won’t do, Cyelena. May I trade you?”

Kassinia held out her silver sword with a leather-bound hilt. Cyelena handed her old sword to Kassinia and I could see how she must have felt a surge of power when she touched the hilt of Kassinia’s sword.

“While yielding this sword, you will be stronger and fight as well as the best mortal fighters. You will need this in the days to come.” With a touch of Kassinia’s hand, Cyelena’s clothes shimmered and morphed into an outfit like mine, but it was red and gold instead of mine with green and gold. She looked very sexy in it.

Moving over to stand next to Cyelena, I took her hand in mine. “Thank you, Kassinia.”

She smiled. “I prefer mother from you, my child.”

It felt right. “Thank you, Mother.”

“May the blessings of the gods go with you.”

Kassinia vanished and I wondered if I would ever get used to seeing a goddess face to face.

Cyelena and I sat down together and I tried to take my mind off what we would doing tomorrow. So much had happened that I hadn’t even thought much about my change. Even the random reflections of my new self didn’t seem strange to me anymore. Every minute I spend as Arya feels like a month of living as a woman. I don’t miss being thin, shorter, awkward, ugly, or male. Knowing that if I survive all of this I could be living away from men and with Cyelena, is the greatest gift I could ever receive.

I leaned into Cyelena and felt her arms pull me closer. Do all heroes feel inadequate?

***

It was still dark when we all got to our feet and stretched. None of us had much sleep. The plan was simple. Tyr’gon would land us on the far side of the cavern mouth, furthest away from the city. We would work our way to the entrance and eliminate the beasts standing guard there. Once we got inside, Cyelena and I would do our best to not cause any alarm, but once the Darken Horde were roused, it would be an all-out fight. Tyr’gon would hold back any Horde that try to enter the cavern and begin tearing away at the rock from the outside as we tried to rescue H’Lennorath.

I was amazed at how silent a dragon could fly if it wanted to and with it being dark we caused no commotion or alarms as we circled in from the south. Once Tyr’gon had retreated, Cyelena and I crept towards the cavern entrance. Two enormous beasts guarded the cave and these were unlike any I had seen before. These stood nearly twelve feet tall and were almost humanlike in their appearance if you took away their scales, four arms, and gaping mouths with fangs.

Large metal braziers with fires in them were used as lighting for the beasts so we could see them quite clearly whereas we were hidden in the darkness. We had hoped to find a way to sneak past them, but the closer we got, we could see no way around. Placing one arrow in the ground before me, I nocked another and aimed for the furthest creature’s head. I held my breath a moment to steady my shot and let the arrow fly. Before the first beast fell to the ground, I had fired my second arrow at the nearest creature.

At this point, I was quite positive that my bow was enhancing my abilities as I had never been very good before. We had little time to waste and moved quietly past the dead guards and slipped into the cave.

The passageway was lit with more braziers filled with fire. In the firelight we could see how the entrance had been fortified by stone. For the next few minutes, we moved deeper into the passageway until the cavern opened. Looking around the cavern wall, we could see our path worked its way downward in a spiral. One hundred feet below us was the cavern floor where H’Lennorath was bound with mighty chains on each leg. His wings and mouth were secured tightly with thick, heavy leather straps. Surrounding the great dragon were half a dozen Darken Horde being fed drips of blood from tubes connected to H’Lennorath’s neck. Each of the six Horde were in various stages of growth and enhancement.

Between us and H’Lennorath were nearly a dozen normal Darken Horde and several enhanced Horde beasts. Once we stepped around the corner we would be visible and would have to fight our way down. Cyelena touched my shoulder and whispered in my ear. “My sword begs to be used.”

I nodded, reached back and squeezed her hand before stepping out onto the pathway that led down to the cavern floor. My bow was drawn and I fired arrow after arrow to see Horde fall from the pathway edge to the ground below. Angry growls filled the cavern and I could hear the roar of Tyr’gon and felt her fire blasting the cavern entrance. H’Lennorath eyes focused on mine and I could see him strain against his bindings to no avail.

A clash of metal behind me caused me to turn. Some Darken Horde must have made it past Tyr’gon and I watched in amazement and Cyelena cut, spun, and slashed through them like the mightiest warrior humans had ever seen. She was inspiring to watch.

“Keep moving!” Cyelena shouted.

More Horde were now running up the pathway towards us. I focused on the enhanced beasts and fired at them as we ran. We had made it a quarter of the way down when I noticed a large passageway where dozens more Horde were pouring in to the cavern.

H’Lennorath’s tail snapped the tight leather straps that had bound it to the floor and with a thunderous crash, it slammed its tail into the rock above the passageway. Rocks tumbled down onto fleeing Horde and the passageway was sealed.

At this point, I was very thankful my bow and quiver were not normal and for every arrow I pulled from the quiver, another arrow appeared. Cyelena had protected us from behind, but now she pushed ahead of me. I focused on the Horde running up the pathway and the beasts connected to H’Lennorath while Cyelena took down any that were close.

At one point, several Horde broke past Cyelena and ran straight for me. I ducked, used my bow as a staff, and spun aside giving me time to get arrows in them.

There was a tremendous crash from above and I stumbled as the cavern shook. Tyr’gon was attacking the rock reinforcements from the outside. The Darken Horde numbers were dwindling rapidly and as I gained my footing once again, Cyelena and I removed the last of the threats.

Breathing a sigh of relief that we both made it this far unscathed, Cyelena began cutting at the leather straps while I worked on releasing the straps binding H’Lennorath’s mouth and the chains on his legs. Placing my hand on the giant dragon’s neck, I whispered to him. “Steady H’Lennorath. Tyr’gon is here with us. We’re your friends.”

Reaching up I unclasped several of the large buckles holding his mouth shut and as soon as one was free, H’Lennorath broke the other two and roared so loudly I thought I would go deaf. I quickly moved to begin unclasping the chains and soon H’Lennorath was completely free.

H’Lennorath stretched his wings and thrust downward ripping out the tubes from his neck. He looked incredibly angry as he turned towards me. “Thyria?”

“I’m Arya. Thyria died many years ago. This is Cyelena. How long have you been trapped here?”

“Too many years to count. You are going to make me yield to you? I see Kassinia’s bow.”

“No. You’re free if we can get you out of this cavern.”

I was stunned that he flew upward and crashed into the cavern ceiling with enough force to rain boulders down all around us. I expected something different, perhaps gratitude or a word of thanks. Grabbing Cyelena’s hand, I pulled her back over to the pathway leading out when the passageway that had been blocked by H’Lennorath’s tail exploded outward sending us both heavily to the ground.

We staggered to our feet to see a man step forth. He stood eight feet tall and his skin was marbled. Some was normal, but most was a dark ashen gray with red lines that looked like lava flowing beneath his skin. His eyes glowed red and he held a flaming sword in his hand.

“Who dares defy, Norath?” His voice boomed even above the sounds of H’Lennorath and Tyr’gon ripping apart the cavern ceiling. He turned to face us. “Mere human mortals!” He smashed his sword on the ground and a fissure opened breaking up the ground at our feet. Cyelena and I dove to opposite sides.

I fired an arrow straight into his heart. He staggered, but pulled himself straight and yanked the arrow from his chest as if nothing had happened. “Run Cyelena. He’s Norath, the cast down god!”

He leapt towards me and brought his sword down, but with a loud clang it stopped inches from me. Cyelena had jumped the fissure and blocked his strike. Diving to the side, I rolled and fired two more arrows in quick succession, both hitting their mark in his chest. Ignoring Cyelena, he stepped forward and grabbed me around my neck and lifting me off the ground. I felt his fire tear through me. I was burning from the inside out. He then stared into my eyes and told me how pathetic I was before casting me aside like a lifeless doll. I felt the impact with the hard stone floor of the cavern and my ribs shattered. I’m dying. My life is over. The last thing I remembered was a huge dark shape descending towards me.

***

I screamed as I still felt the fire coursing through my body. My breathing was shallow and every breath brought wracking pain. Blue sky was above me and two dragons looked down upon me. Cyelena was there. She was bruised and scraped, but she was on her knees near me. I could hear her words but I couldn’t speak.

“Kassinia, I beg of you. Take my life to save Arya.”

There were several flashes of light and I saw Kassinia had appeared along with two others. My breath caught in my chest, my lungs refusing to work any longer. My vision began to erode and I could feel my blood slow. The pain diminished as the darkness crept in. Then there was peace and darkness.

***

I felt lips on mine, my lungs filled with air, and there was an incredible surge of energy as if a lightning bolt had hit me. Strength began to return to my body. My bones knit together. The lips left me and I took a deep breath. I opened my eyes not knowing what I might see.

Cyelena wrapped her arms around me and pulled me up. “You’re back!”

I looked down at my arms and everything looked normal. “Do I want to know where I went? I feel incredible. I was burning, broken… Did I die?”

Cyelena pulled me up to a standing position. My clothes were frayed, ripped, torn, and had blood on them, but I couldn’t find a scratch on me. Cyelena kept her arm around my waist as she looked to Kassinia to explain.

“I think introductions are in order. To my right is Dwaynara, the Goddess of life. To my left is Jadorth, God of air and the elements.”

“I’ve never heard of Dwaynara or Jadorth. I’m sorry. How many gods are there?”

“The world has mostly forgotten us. In the beginning, there were four of us. Norath, which we all believed was dead, was the god of destruction and death. We cast him down to this world and stripped him of much of his power in the process, but he hid himself. We believed the Darken Horde were created when he arrived, and a balance had ensued between humans and the Horde.”

“I can’t believe I’m standing with the Gods of this world.”

“You might find it harder to believe that you are one of us now.”

“A Goddess? Me?”

“As close to one as you can be on this world. When Norath exposed himself, we knew this world was doomed. It was Norath that captured H’Lennorath and Norath that began enhancing the Horde. He desires to ruin this world that we created and will stop at nothing. There was no force on this world that could stop him… Until now.”

I was very confused. “Can we start at the beginning when Norath was killing me?”

Cyelena began to sob. “It was my fault. I tried to stop him, but my sword could do nothing. I watched him lift you up and your skin started cracking, like fire was about to come out of you. When he tossed you aside… It was H’Lennorath that saved us. He dove downward and snatched us both with his talons and flew back up to the ceiling, crashing through. Together we flew here, near the Finmer Lodge where I found there was nothing I could do for you.”

Kassinia spoke again. “Cyelena prayed for your life. We had to wait until the moment of your death, when your soul was moving between worlds. Dwaynara breathed her life into you, Jadorth started your heart, and I renewed your strength. We each gave a third of our power so that you could rise and fight Norath. We should have made sure of his death a long time ago, but we have rules. We cannot fight battles in this realm. Either we choose to let this world die at the hands of Norath, or we needed to find someone with the right heart to become a Goddess here.”

“I don’t feel different.”

“Cyelena has injuries. Touch her. Heal her. The power of Dwaynara is in you.”

I reached for Cyelena and cupped her cheek with my hand. She leaned her head into it. I desired her to be healed and her bruises and cuts vanished.

I stared at my hand in awe. “What have you done to me?”

Kassinia looked a little sad. “You are no longer mortal, my sister.”

“But what of Cyelena? She will… while I… Take it back. Take your power back and make me mortal again so that Cyelena and I can grow old and die together.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible, Arya. However, with your power you can keep Cyelena alive, young, and healthy indefinitely.”

“Cyelena? Do you still want me?”

“I’m not afraid now. My only fear in life was to lose you and I thought I had. The only questions I have are can I marry a Goddess, is it allowed, and who would marry us?”

“We would be happy to officiate your wedding once this is over and a proper and formal request is made and receivedf.”

Taking Cyelena’s hand in mine, it helped me feel somewhat normal. “What happens now?”

“Now that Norath is exposed to us and knows we can see him, he will set about the destruction of the world. He has gathered an entire army of Darken Horde and surrounded himself with his enhanced creatures. He marches towards Venalleigh as we speak.”

“You think I can kill him?”

“I’ve given you far more strength then he has, you can control the elements, and have life-giving power. Norath can hurt you, but he can’t kill you. You can counter his destruction with life, his fire with lightning, and his strength with yours.”

“My bow…”

“Buried inside the cavern in Baladon. You can always retrieve it later.”

“And I’ll be there to fight by your side.” Cyelena squeezed my hand.

Tyr’gon nudged me from behind. “We will also fight with you.”

My hand caressed Tyr’gon’s neck. “You have no obligation, my friend.”

H’Lennorath spread his wings. “Norath made this war personal, but we would do it for you anyways.”

Jadorth walked forward and hugged me. “We must leave you now, my sister. Remember you are more powerful and can do more than you even imagine.”

Dwaynara cupped my face and touched her forehead to mine. “It will be nice having another sister. Kassinia can be so boring sometimes. Remember that while you can give life, it’s not always the right thing to do.”

Kassinia hugged me close. “You’re a goddess now. You might want to change your clothes. They look a fright. We will see you soon.”

They vanished in a flash of light and I wondered if I had that ability as well. I reached over and hugged H’Lennorath’s neck. “Thank you.”

“I only wish my fire was strong enough to see Norath turned to ash.”

“One day you must tell me of your time with Thyria.”

Cyelena leaned in and kissed me passionately. “You have no idea how jealous I was of Dwaynara breathing life back into you. Where do we go from here?”

“You’re asking me?”

“You’re the Goddess, although, you don’t look like one right now.”

I looked down at me clothes that were more rags than anything and imagined myself in a flowing white gown that left me room to move easily, yet enhanced my figure.

“Oh… wow! Now that’s a Goddess.”

“Shall we head to Venalleigh?”

“What about your father and Thaen?”

“I could ask you the same about your uncle and cousin. Are you worried about them?”

Cyelena swung her sword like a professional. “Nope.”

“I’m really not afraid of my brother or father anymore either.”

***

I rode Tyr’gon and Cyelena rode H’Lennorath. We passed over many men that were digging in and preparing a new front-line defense between the Darken Horde and the city. The Horde’s main army was several hours away. We circled a few times and landed. It was only a short time before father, Thaen, and the other kings surrounded us. This time they came with numerous guards, but moments later, Red and his men came up behind us.

To exacerbate the situation, I turned to great Red first.

“I see you were successful, Arya. Does this mean the Darken Horde can no longer produce new enhanced beasts?”

“Yes, but there is a new problem that is even worse. How are your men dealing with the kings?”

“They know a line of the Horde are coming, so they graciously allow us to spill our blood first.”

“Arya!”

That was father.

I turned back to Red. “I could use your wisdom if you would like to join me.”

“I’d be honored although I’m not in favor with Jaord.”

There was a story there I wanted to discover, but we had no time for that at the moment. We turned back towards father and the other kings and guards who had remained well back of the dragons.

“You have a lot of nerve coming back here. Guards! Take these two into custody to await their execution.”

Red whispered. “Execution?”

“It’s a long story.”

I stepped forward with Cyelena at my side. “Jaord Redbeorn. We all have much more to worry about than your contrived scheme to set you up as ruler over all the realms. One word from either of us, and you will be sweeping up the ashes of guards.”

One of the other kings spoke up. “What is she speaking about you ruling all of us?”

“She lies. She tried to kill Traen. Guards. Take them into custody.”

A guard stepped forward and Cyelena drew her sword. There was a quick alteration and the guard was disarmed and Cyelena had slammed the man back with the palm of her hand.

Red nodded approvingly. “Very nicely done, Cyelena.”

She smiled. “You’re a masterful instructor.”

Thaen pushed his way towards me. “She’s unarmed.”

“Enough of this!”

A bolt of lightning exploded on the ground between Thaen and me sending everyone scurrying in all directions.

Father started yelling. “What is this sorcery?”

“The Gods are angry with us. Not far from here, Norath, the cast down God of destruction, is coming with his full Darken Horde army. We need to work together to defeat them. If we fail to stop them now, the world as we know it is over.”

Father held back, but the other kings stepped forward. “You believe this beguiling witch?”

One of the other kings turned to my father. “I’ve listened to you for too long, Jaord. How can you stand back and not see we’re living in times of legends? I’ll not squabble about power or personal vendettas. I have a wife and children at home at stake and humanity is worth fighting for.”

Father eyes flashed angrily. “When the battle is done, we retain the right to execute our judgement against these two; and him.” He pointed menacingly at Red.

Defiant until the end.

I asked for Red’s sword and began drawing on the ground. “Norath and the army are coming up from this direction. We need to give space for H’Lennorath and Tyr’gon to strike them across the front line. Red and Cyelena, I want you to take your team of warriors and move out west. Joard, take your men east. Wait until the Darken Horde army moves by you and H’Lennorath and Tyr’gon make their passes across the line. That will effectively split their army in two. Once that happens, I need you to keep the Horde that remained behind the fire line distracted. All the other battle units, hold the line between the Horde and the city.”

“What will you do, Arya?”

“Leave Norath to me.”

Father laughed. “You? Against a God? You don’t even have a weapon.”

“I fought him once before and lived, mostly. I’ve killed their giant creatures. Do you wish to take the lead?”

He shook his head and stepped back.

“Then we do this my way.”

The kings agreed and broke to direct their men into place.

Red put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m honored to fight alongside you.”

“Take care of Cyelena for me.”

“With my life.”

Red left and I paused to hold Cyelena a moment. “I’m looking forward to a very long lifetime with you.” I snuggled close into her arms and felt as frail as I ever had been before.

“Look at you, my betrothed. A Goddess that shakes in my arms. If you don’t mind, I’d like to keep my position of being your protector.”

“I’d like that very much. Take care, my love.”

We held each other a moment longer, before she kissed me and ran off to join Red and his team. I walked over to H’Lennorath and Tyr’gon. “Focus your efforts on the bulk of their fighting force and the enhanced beasts around Norath. Whatever you do, don’t get too close to him.”

“It will be nice to share these stories of how we fought alongside of the Goddess Arya with our children.”

“Children?”

“Dragons mate for life and we have much lost time to make up for.”

I smiled. “Be safe.”

***

I waited an hour before I heard the horns. Everyone was in position and I could see the dust rise from the ground as the Darken Horde marched forward. There were thousands of them. Tens of thousands.

“Hold the line!” I shouted. “Don’t attack until H’Lennorath and Tyr’gon have made their first pass.”

I formed a normal sword and shield in my hands and watched as H’Lennorath and Tyr’gon swooped down from either side of the Darken Horde army. They spread their fire with tremendous roars, grabbed giant beasts with their talons, and ripped apart Horde warriors with their teeth. I could see Norath surrounded by his enhanced beasts beyond the flames. Those beasts halted as Norath strode right through the fire. The Horde not killed by the dragons rushed forward towards our front line.

“Now!”

The bayla horns sounded and the warriors of the realms rushed to meet the Horde. Father’s battalion came in from the left to attack those Horde and beasts that were left behind the fire as Red did likewise from the right. Tyr’gon and H’Lennorath banked and attacked again as I ran straight towards Norath.

Using my shield, I batted away Horde that came from my left, and my sword sliced through those on my right. I stopped fifty feet from Norath.

“You should be dead!” He screamed. With a leap, he closed the distance between us and slammed hard against my shield.

The force of the blow sent me flying backwards twenty yards and badly damaged my shield. I drew in a deep breath and threw the bent and broken shield to the side. Norath was there upon me again and swung down with his flaming sword, but I rolled away to get some distance between us. I was afraid. I could still feel the burning in my skin from the last time he touched me.

He spun and jumped again, this time his hand grabbed me around my neck and pushed me down to the ground. I could feel him squeeze and the fire begin to burn within me.

“You’re stronger than he is.”

“You have my life-giving power.”

“You can do more than you could ever imagine.”

The words of Kassinia, Dwaynara, and Jadorth sounded in my mind. I could feel Dwaynara’s life within me and I pushed against the fire and the pain vanished. I then grabbed Norath’s wrist with my right hand and pulled his hand from my throat. His eyes widened and he pushed harder, but I was stronger than him. He began pulling back and I let go.

“What are you?” He screamed.

I stood to my feet and could feel the power of being a Goddess. “You made me what I am. You killed me and the remaining Gods brought me back to life. I am the Goddess Arya and I am your destruction.”

He roared and swung his mighty flaming sword down to cleave me in two but I fashioned a sword of lightning and blocked his attack. A wave of energy knocked the Darken Horde from their feet all around us.

“I am the God of destruction!”

He swung back and forth trying to push me back, but I blocked each attack and stepped forward with an attack of my own.

“You can’t kill me!”

I ignored his rant and pressed him. I could feel the battle going on all around me. I glanced towards Cyelena and watched her bring one giant Horde beast down after another. She was a force to be reckoned with, but there were areas that were not faring well. The dragons had done massive damage, but now the fighting had moved to places it was harder and harder for them to fight without injuring their allies. This had to end soon.

I can do more than I can imagine. I lifted myself off the ground, changed my sword to a spear, and dove forward towards Norath. The spear plunged into his heart, through him, and the force of the blow buried the spear deep into the earth. Electrical energy danced across his body until the fire in his eyes faded and went dark. At the moment of his death, a wave of light spread outward causing the Horde to fall to the ground and dissolve away like dust. The Darken Horde were no more.

Turning away from Norath’s body, I was tackled by Cyelena. Her lips pressed against mine.

“You did it, Arya! You save the day.”

Red was the next to arrive. “You never told me you were a Goddess.”

“The last time we met, I wasn’t. It’s a long story.”

“One I will hold you to telling me.”

The kings all arrived with the exception of my father. They bowed to me.

I leaned over to Cyelena. “Why are they bowing to me?” I whispered.

“Everyone noticed you flying into the air. I would surmise you have now become the ultimate authority on this world.”

A warrior pushed through. “Arya! Venalleigh took heavy casualties. Prince Thaen is dead and the King badly wounded. He is asking for you.”

Thaen is dead. For all that he had done to me through the years, I didn’t wish to see him killed. The warrior led us over to my father. His breathing was labored and he was losing a lot of blood.

I knelt next to him. “You asked for me?”

He coughed up some blood. “Did we… defeat the Darken Horde?”

“Yes. With Norath’s death, the Darken Horde are no more.”

“And me? Your… strategy… was to kill me as well?”

I sighed. “I didn’t want anyone to die. I certainly didn’t wish for your death.”

He coughed again. “You must still… stand… and be judged for your crimes.”

I hung my head and placed my hand on his chest. “Is this all my fault, father? Could I have been a better son, or now, a daughter?” On his deathbed he was once again my father in my thoughts and mind and my comments had slipped from me.

“Father?”

There was a flash of light and Kassinia stood before all of us. She leaned down and hugged me. “Greetings, sister. I’m sorry to intervene, but I think I can help clear things up.”

“By all means.”

Kassinia floated up above the ground for all to see and hear. “I am the Goddess Kassinia. I have watched over and followed Karack Redbeorn and Cyelena for many days now. Karack saw what was happening with the Darken Horde and took it upon himself to find Thyria’s bow. He knew that following in Thyria’s footsteps was the only sure way to push the Darken Horde back. He risked his life for all of you, even though you treated him as if he was an unworthy slave. He and Cyelena braved many dangers to travel to Thyria’s resting place, where Karack found her bow, a bow that I gave to Thyria and the only bow capable of penetrating a dragon’s armor. The bow is magical and is infused with my power. The bearer of the bow must represent my likeness.”

A feeling of cold dread came over me. She’s going to tell them I’m Karack. I’m a Goddess and I still fear men.

“The magic of the bow transformed Karack into Arya.”

There were gasps and my father’s eyes widened.

Kassinia continued. “There was no transforming Karack back. The bow’s magic had done its work and bound itself to Arya. After all he had done and how badly you treated him, Karack, now Arya, forged ahead to find a way to save all of humanity from the Darken Horde. To do this, he had to confront Tyr’gon, the last of the dragon queens. As you are aware, Arya and Cyelena were successful and securing an alliance with the great dragon.”

“You’re… Karack?”

I nodded slowly.

Red shook his head. “Now it all comes together. How you knew me. Our conversations. You headed deep into Darken Horde territory to free the other dragon. What happened there?”

Cyelena placed her hand on my shoulder. “The only way to enhance the Darken Horde beasts is through the blood of a dragon. H’Lennorath had been captured and we entered the Horde lair to free him. We fought hard against numerous Horde and their beasts, and after we freed H’Lennorath, we were faced with a new threat. Norath, the God of destruction, cast down upon the world by the other three Gods of creation. Norath is the one that first created the Darken Horde. His power was great. While no longer a true God, he was more powerful than the dragons or Arya’s bow. Arya died doing what she did best; protecting all of you.”

“But he… she’s alive.”

Kassinia spoke again. “At the moment of her death, the three remaining Gods reanimated Arya and gave her power to be a Goddess on this world. We Gods could not fight Norath here, but Arya could. Without knowing her full powers, she faced Norath and defeated him, saving mankind from Norath’s fate for everyone.”

“K… Karack. I wronged… you. Forgive…”

Father died in my arms and I laid myself across his body and wept. I had the power to heal him, but I knew Dwaynara was correct. I had to let him go, but to hear his apology was enough to break the hardness in my heart. Four small words from him and a lifetime of humiliation and pain had vanished.

It was Red’s voice that penetrated the silence. “What do we do now, Goddess Kassinia?”

“It is not me you need to look for guidance from. Arya is to remain here until such time she desires to leave this world and join us.” I felt her touch on my head. “Be well, my sister.”

In a flash of light, Kassinia vanished, leaving all eyes on me.

I stood and took Cyelena’s hand in mine. “Today, we honor those that have fallen and tomorrow we celebrate. Send runners to each of the realms. The Darken Horde are no more!”

The kings each moved back to give orders to their warriors. Red stayed behind.

“How do I address you? Goddess? Should I bow?”

“Arya will do fine, and I never want anyone to bow to me.”

“I’d like to go home to my wife.”

“Could you stay? I wish to meet to discuss things with the kings tomorrow. I want you there. I will make sure Griselda knows you’re safe.”

“Then I would be happy to oblige.”

A Venalleigh warrior came up to me. “I overheard the Goddess Kassinia. You’re the only remaining royalty of Venalleigh. The city is yours to command.”

“Take care of our dead and build a pyre for Thaen and Jaord. We will honor them all tonight.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

Cyelena pulled me from the others to where Tyr’gon and H’Lennorath waited.

I smiled and I stroked both their cheeks. “Thank you both for everything.”

“We will take our leave of your both. Know that our friendship will always remain. We have other matters to attend to.”

It dawned on me what he was speaking about. “I’m honored to be called your friend. Perhaps we can visit you sometime soon.”

“Just not too soon…”

We watched the two dragons fly off towards the north leaving me alone with Cyelena. We both looked a fright with blood stains on our clothes and dirt on our faces and in our hair.

“And me, Goddess? What would you have me do?”

“Not you too.”

Cyelena giggled and kissed me. “How are we going to let Griselda know Red is safe?”

“First, we need to get cleaned up, then we can go to the Finmer Lodge.”

“Can’t you just snap your fingers and make us clean and sparkly?”

“What’s the fun in that?” The battle with Norath had put me in touch with all my Goddess powers. In a flash of light, Cyelena and I were instantly at the hot spring pool in Thyria’s valley.

“Whoa! I can see having a Goddess as a girlfriend has its benefits. I guess with all that power, you can turn yourself back into a man?”

“No, but I could possibly turn you into one if you want. I have no desire to ever be a man again. The only thing I really want is to be your wife.”

“I’m sure you could wiggle your finger and make me forget my past with men or even turn me into one, but I like being me and being with you gives me more happiness than I deserve. I do know one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“That you’re overdressed for the pool.” Cyelena chased after me until we collapsed together with her on top. “I’ve got you now.”

***

We took our time bathing and enjoying each other before I gave our clothes a well-deserved refresh before we popped over to the Finmer Lodge. We entered the place and were greeted warmly by the owner.

“Any news of the war?”

“You’ll hear more soon, but the war is over. The Darken Horde is gone.”

“The season ended early.”

“The battle season is over forever. The Darken Horde have been completely defeated. Is Grisedla here? We bring word from Red.”

“That’s incredible news. I’ll go find her.”

A moment later Griselda came in from the back. “You have news from Red?”

“He and his team are all safe.”

Her eyes glistened with moisture. “Thank you! When will he be home?”

“Actually, I would like to see if you could join him in Venalleigh.”

“Let me check with the owner.”

“We’ll wait outside.”

Once outside, Cyelena took my hand in hers. “What are you planning?”

“I was a Prince, then a daughter of Kassinia, and now her sister. I don’t need to be Queen of Venalleigh.”

“You’re going to make Red a king?”

“The thought crossed my mind.”

“What about you?”

“I don’t want to rule. I’d be very happy with just you and me out in Llynmera.”

“I like that very much.”

“Don’t say anything to Red or Griselda. I still have to convince the other kings.”

“I highly doubt anyone would disagree with you.”

Griselda came out of the lodge. “I can go. Do you have a carriage?”

Cyelena took the lead. “There’s something you should know about Arya.”

***

We arrived in Venalleigh’s main plaza with the flash of light alerting everyone to our presence. By now, all the citizens had heard about me but nevertheless, they all stopped what they were doing. Red came out of a nearby building and upon seeing Griselda, ran over and swept her up into his arms.

“Now this is a treat! It can be handy having a Goddess as a friend.”

“You might not thank me tomorrow. Enjoy yourselves tonight, but I want you both to join me when I meet with the kings in the morning.”

Red slipped an arm around Griselda and took her away. He was quickly replaced by the other kings and dignitaries. That was followed by a stream of people from Venalleigh wanting to know my wishes.

It was all too much and I requested some privacy with Cyelena as we stood on the ramparts looking down on the funeral pyres of my father and brother. There was an air of finality about it all. I looked up to the ruined wall and window of my old room and then back down at myself. My gold hair had spilled down my shoulders and over my breasts. Had I been born this way, I would have been married off by now. I would have had no say in my future. Would father have loved me then? Would he have been happy had I never been born at all?

“It’s a lot to take in, Arya. We’ve been through so much together.”

“Our time together is only just beginning. I was told my mother’s old room is being made ready for us. Do you know where it is?”

“I do. You need a moment to yourself, don’t you?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to be with you…”

“Enough said. I understand. Just don’t take too long.”

Cyelena kissed me and I watched her walk away. I turned to look back at the pyres and pondered all that had taken place. I could override the magic of Kassinia’s bow and turn myself back into a man, but I have no desire to do so. The world knew I had been Karack and no one seemed to care. Of course, that’s more likely because I’m a Goddess now.

I slowly walked back to my mother’s old room. Many people stopped to greet me along the way making it take longer to get back to Cyelena than I had wanted. I was in the hall coming up to the heavy doorway of the mother’s room when the door exploded outward and Cyelena’s cousin smashed into the stone walls of the hallway. Even in his stunned state, I could see him reach for a heavily blood stained area between his legs.

Seconds later, Cyelena’s uncle flew out of the room and crashed next to her cousin. His right hand was missing a few fingers. Cyelena stepped through the fragments of the doorway, her sword held menacingly at the pair. “Don’t ever come near me or Arya again!”

Cyelena looked at me and smiled. She was calm and collected. “We need a new door.”

“Should I do something with these two?”

She shook her head. “My cousin will be not be able to violate a woman again, and my uncle’s trade needs his fingers. He will be forced into low-paying work that will cause him years of suffering. I could have killed them, but it’s not worth it.”

I stepped into the room and with a wave of my hand the door rebuilt itself behind me.

“I should have been with you. Cyelena.”

“They waited for a chance to catch me alone. They tried to attack me, but I’m not afraid of them any longer. I needed that.”

Her eyes were full of passion as she looked upon me. She gently pushed me back against the cold stone walls and I yielded to her touch and kiss.

She pulled away leaving me slightly cold. “Remember I told you I have plans for you? Secret plans?”

I nodded.

Cyelena dropped to a knee and held up a gold ring with a large solitary diamond. “Will you, Arya Desini, Goddess of this world, friend of dragons, slayer of Norath, and victor over the Darken Horde, take plain ordinary me as your wife?”

“I should propose to you.”

“Hush… You did that already. It’s my turn to ask you.”

“You make me sound so legendary.”

I could see Cyelena’s impatience growing. “My knee is getting sore down here.”

I pulled Cyelena up and into my embrace. “Nothing would make me happier than to be your wife. You’re the most wonderful, kind, honorable, compassionate, and now not only the most beautiful woman but also the greatest fighter in the world.”

“You make me sound so perfect.”

“You are. You’re more than I deserve.”

I felt the ring slip onto my wedding finger. It reminded me of one I had seen before. After kissing Cyelena multiple times, I held up the ring as it glistened in the firelight. “You stole Thyria’s ring?”

“Kassinia gave it to me right after your transformation and told me to use it when the time was right.”

“You’ve had it all this time and made me wait?”

“There never seemed to be the right moment.”

“Who will oversee our wedding?”

“Kassinia, H’Lennorath, and Tyr’gon.”

“I can’t wait to consummate our marriage.”

“Why wait?” Cyelena’s hand found mine as she led me to the bed.

***

The next morning, Cyelena and I met the kings in the throne room. Red and Griselda were there. Everyone waited patiently for me to speak.

“I know all of you are anxious to get back to your realms, so I thank you for staying an extra night. With the Darken Horde threat eliminated we can all get back to our lives, but we need to make some changes. As Goddess of this world, I will no longer allow men to dominate women. Women will be equals, with equal say in how the realms are run and even their choice of husbands.”

The kings were angry with that, but none dared to confront me.

“I will be visiting the realms from time to time to make sure things are being run correctly. There is also the matter of Venalleigh. While I am the last remaining royalty, technically, I’ve been reborn and am no longer of Redbeorn blood. Of all the men I have met, I believe Red and his lovely wife, Griselda, have what it takes to be King of Venalleigh.”

Red shook his head and Griselda gasped.

One of the kings spoke up. “This is highly unorthodox. He has no royal blood.”

It was Red that spoke up. “Actually, I do. Jaord’s wife was my younger sister and the royal line was never the Redbeorns, but came from my family. I chose not to be King of Venalleigh. This is a choice I now regret. Karack and Arya have taught me much and it is time I step into the great responsibility to become a servant leader of these people.”

The other kings began to argue. “His right needs to be proven.” “I think the lands of Venalleigh should be distributed to the other realms.”

“Enough! I’m sure evidence can be found to prove Red’s right to rule, but my choice is made. If you have a problem, you can speak to me.”

There wasn’t even a murmur.

“Cyelena and I will live in Lynmera at Thyria’s old palace. From here it is due north in the mountains. You are all welcome to visit if you wish to brave the passes that are frigid and cold even in summer. Cyelena and I will soon marry and she will be treated with the utmost respect as Queen of Lynmera.”

Again, no one questioned me.

“We won a victory over the Darken Horde. We won that victory together. My thanks and blessings go with you all. Be safe on your journeys home.”

The group disbanded and all went their separate ways. Red and Griselda stayed behind.

“You’re my uncle? Is that why father didn’t seem to like you much?”

Red laughed. “He never wanted me close to Venalleigh for fear of my asserting my rights to rule here. I guess I am your uncle. Your mother was always the best of us. Jaord wasn’t so bad before your mother died.”

“I always believed he blamed me for her death. Are you ready to be King?”

“Are you ready to be Goddess?”

I laughed. “I doubt I’ll ever be ready to be a Goddess.”

“Too late.”

“I’ll say the same back to you, King of Venalleigh.”

Cyelena hugged Griselda. “We hope you can both come to our wedding.”

“We’d like that very much.”

***

The next few weeks were very busy. Cyelena and I travelled back to Baladon and recovered Kassinia’s bow. We had no desire to risk it getting into the wrong hands. We visited each of the realms and made sure our new rules were being enforced. We spent time with Red making certain the citizens accepted their rue and we could already see the people in Venalleigh begin to flourish.

The lands south of the Fields of Middlenden had begun to show signs of life and Cyelena and I couldn’t be happier together. Today, we stood at the entrance to the great cavern on Thunder Mountain. We yelled into the cave as we didn’t want to risk coming upon two dragons without notice.

There was a roar for a reply and a grumble. “Two weeks is not much time, Arya. You may, however, enter.”

Taking Cyelena’s hand in mine, we walked into the cavern to find Tyr’gon and H’Lennorath hovering protectively over a clutch of shining dragon eggs.

Tyr’gon seemed like a proud mother. “To what do we owe the visit, Goddess?”

I held out Kassinia’s bow. “As promised. This bow belongs to you both and should remain here with you to be safe from the hands of men.”

There was a sparkle in their eyes. H’Lennorath moved closer to us and laid his massive head at our feet. “If you ever have need of the bow, it is yours to take. We owe you both much and all we can offer is our ongoing friendship.”

“Your friendship is worth more to us than you’ll ever know.”

“Our first two children will be named after you both. Tyr’Arya, and H’Cyelena.”

“We are honored. We will be getting married in a week’s time at Thyria’s palace. It would be wonderful if you could come.”

“We will be there. We are neighbors after all.”

***

I stood overlooking Thyria’s valley from the balcony of our bedroom. The sun had just set leaving an orange glow on the snow-capped mountains against an ever darkening violet sky. I took a deep breath of crisp, cool air as Cyelena’s arms slipped around me from behind. I felt her lips on my neck.

“It’s hard to believe our wedding was a year ago today. You’re not tired of me yet?”

I turned into her arms and rubbed my nose against hers. “I’ll never tire of you.”

“I hope you’re not tired now.”

“Oh? What did you have in mind?”

Cyelena picked me up and carried me back to the bed before tossing me down onto it. She kissed me as she pulled the top string of my dress. I loved how she took the lead in our love making and I was more than willing to let her.

***

***

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. Please lease me a message or write a comment. It’s the only way I get paid for my hours of effort.

Casey Brooke



If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
up
264 users have voted.

And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks. 
This story is 35676 words long.