This story is for all those who wondered about what happened next.
If you haven't read "Aelyn's Story" you should read it before this.
My opponent returned my wary stare with a smirk as we circled each other slowly, our boots scuffing the cobblestones in a series of crisp clicks. As I watched, she brought her sword free of its sheath with a clank that echoed off the surrounding walls. My eyes never left hers as I drew my own sword, the hilt slipping slightly in my shaking hand. The circling ceased abruptly as she made her move, lunging at me suddenly.
Our swords met with a sickening clang as her blue eyes flashed in the sunlight, bright as the reflection of the sun in her sword. How I hated the sound of swords! It was a sound that I had come to hate at an early age as I watched war take my loved ones from me with sickening abandon. But there was no time for such musings now. There must be no thought in my mind besides the fight at hand.
We were clearly unmatched, my opponent and I. It was growing increasingly obvious as I defended myself against her attack that she was simply toying with me, drawing out my technique as a schoolmaster draws recitations from his students. She could destroy me in a minute if she so pleased, destroy me as she had destroyed so many before me. No one had ever walked away from a match with her the victor. In years past, no one had even walked away from her alive. The lady who fought with her left hand had no equal in the known world for swordplay.
As if sensing my thoughts, her attack became increasingly violent and harder to withstand. I found myself ever on the defensive, slowly losing ground as she backed me closer and closer to the stone wall behind me. A drop of sweat coursed down my face as I struggled to keep a grip on my sword. Her sword came down hard on mine, jarring my wrist and drawing blood. My sword came crashing to the ground as the tip of hers grazed my now throbbing wrist.
Now, at last it is over, I thought grimly.
Her sword dropped to the stones of the courtyard with my own, and she immediately took my wrist in both her hands. "Oh Ishelyn," she gasped. "I'm so terribly sorry, I can't believe I just did that! I must be losing my touch."
"Somehow I doubt that," I told her wryly as I bent to survey the damage. The cut was bleeding profusely, but didn't appear to be very deep or particularly serious.
"Does it hurt terribly?" she asked in concern.
"It'll be sore," I told her, "but I've had worse."
Somehow that didn't seem to comfort her at all. "Here, let me tie my handkerchief around it until we can bandage it properly," she said, fishing the sloth out of her boot and wrapping it deftly around my wrist. Years of experience with bandaging wounds ensured that it wasn't either too tight or too loose.
As we were still staring at my wrist, another voice in the courtyard made us both start in surprise. "Aelyn, love, the baby's awake."
Gareth stood slightly behind my sister and slipped his arms gently around her waist. She tilted her head back and kissed him lightly and covered his hands at her waist with the hand that was no longer holding my wrist. Even after three years of marriage, my sister and her husband were still disgustingly in love with each other.
"What have you done now?" my brother-in-law asked in heavily accented K'ymael as he nodded towards my wrist. He always tried to speak K'ymael when I was around, and at times I almost wished he would just speak in his own tongue. It would be easier to understand.
"I didn't mean to," Aelyn answered him sadly. "I'm not as skilled as I once was."
"Nonsense," Gareth said, and I agreed. No one in all the world could hold a candle to my sister's swordsmanship.
"Besides," I told her, "It's not everyone who can spar with their sister only a month after giving birth."
Aelyn's face brightened at this thought, and she shrugged her way out of Gareth's arms. "Let's go to the baby," she said with a grin, "and we can have the doctor come look at your hand while Gareth tells us the news that the couriers brought in this morning."
So I followed the two of them as they walked hand in hand up to Gareth's study, where afternoon tea with his sisters and captains had become a tradition. Now that he and Aelyn had their baby, I would sit in the corner with Myren and her two children as we listened to Aelyn and the men exchange information and ideas about government and military.
We were the first to arrive at Gareth's study for afternoon tea, and Aelyn took the baby from the maid who was holding her. "Hello baby Kaeyla," she cooed softly as Kaeyla gurgled softly in response. Gareth sat next to Aelyn on the bench and wrapped his arm around wife and child. I turned away from the happy scene and tended to the fire, for even though it was spring, the fortress still retained the cold of winter.
Myren came in next, with ten-year-old Ilona following silently behind her and little Tranis leading the way. Myren's baby was nearly walking now, a beautiful little boy she called Jariem, after her father. Try as we might, Aelyn and I could not figure out how our eldest brother had come to share a name with the Dramarian king.
"Ishelyn," Aelyn said softly, "do you mind holding the baby while I prepare the tea for everyone?"
"Not at all," I responded with a smile, taking Kaeyla from her and sitting in one of the armchairs in front of the fire.
Myren sat across from me and her children settled themselves slightly away from us, Ilona demurely stitching a sampler and Tranis with a sheet of simple arithmetic problems to solve. Jariem sat quietly in her lap, and it always unnerved me how quiet and expressionless Myren and her children were.
Aelyn busied herself with the teapot, trying to convince herself that she was good at playing the role of a Dramarian woman, but in reality relying quite heavily on the constant stream of advice that Gareth was whispering to her. My sister had come a long way in the last three years, but she still destroyed every teapot she came in contact with.
Next to enter the little study were Pohl and Transt, two of Gareth's most trusted commanders. Just behind them came the little old doctor who always tended to the royal family's medical issues and many wounds. "Who am I patching up today?" he asked with a smile.
Aelyn immediately ceased her failing attempts at brewing tea. "My sister," she said, coming over and taking Kaeyla from me.
"What have you been doing now?" the doctor asked me good naturedly as he came and knelt before me to examine the hand. I flushed at the joke in his words. I was not so graceful as my sister.
"It's my fault really," Aelyn responded before I could speak. "I'm clumsier with my sword than I used to be."
"Clumsier than usual is the only way I would like to face you," I answered. "And even then I only do because it is part of my lessons."
Father had ostensibly sent me to Aelyn to help with the baby when it arrived, but Aelyn and I both knew that he wanted me to complete my training with Aelyn. Also, it never hurt to learn how to shot from a Dramarian. They were nearly all of them renowned archers.
Myren played her own part in my lessons, teaching me all the things that Dramarian girls learned to do: knitting, sewing, preparing tea and all that sort of thing. Much as I disliked Myren and her naiveté, I loved learning those things. It was the only time in my life that I had proved to be more adept at something than Aelyn, my perfect older sister.
"Well, it'll heal just fine, and the bleeding has stopped," the doctor told me as he finished wrapping a neat white bandage around my wrist. "Just rub some salve on it once a day before rewrapping it, and there'll be no scar."
"My thanks," I told him with a smile, and as he left, I took Kaeyla from Aelyn again. "Go ruin the tea," I told her.
Quinn and another man I didn't know came in next, and the last person into the room was Kristram, captain of the queen's guard and my sister's dearest Dramarian friend aside from Myren. He was tall, taller than both Gareth and Transt, and about the same height as Quinn, his brother. He was handsome too, in the blonde, windblown fashion of the Dramarians. Since my arrival at the fortress two months ago, he had gone out of his way to treat me like a sister, sometimes much to my embarrassment.
Today was no exception. He planted himself in the armchair next to me, ruffling my hair affectionately as he sat down. He didn't seem to notice the death glares that Myren sent him as he sat in our corner, and I found myself wondering what had passed between the two of them to provoke such animosity from the usually docile Myren. "What's the tally today, Ishelyn?" he asked as he sat next to me.
"The tally of what?" I asked, although I was pretty sure I knew where this line of questioning would end up.
"The tally of poor Dramarian boys with broken hearts," he said with a grin.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I told him, drawing myself up with as much dignity as I could muster. Kaeyla screeched in protest and I settled back into the comfortable chair.
"Oh, come now," he teased. "There's got to be at least twenty poor young slobs pining away for you here."
"I doubt it," I answered haughtily, trying not to sigh as Myren left our corner and went to stand with her husband, leaving me alone with Kristram. "Dramarian boys don't notice the K'ymaeli girl who does her best to stay out of their way."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that," he replied.
"I'm nowhere near as pretty as Aelyn," I said, then wished my words back in my mouth the instant they had left it.
"Is that jealousy I hear?" Kristram asked with a frown.
"Not jealousy," I answered rather untruthfully. "Just the gods' honest truth."
"Now this is what I like to see," Aelyn said with a smile as she took the seat that Myren had vacated and placed three steaming cups of tea on the little table in front of us. "My own captain and my little sister chatting as friends ought."
"Did you make the tea, Aelyn?" Kristram asked as he eyed the mugs warily.
"Yes," my sister said proudly. "Well, Gareth helped a little."
"Then I'll have some," Kristram said with a grin as he took a mug.
Aelyn looked a little hurt. "You do make terrible messes with tea things," I told her apologetically as I took a mug for myself.
"Well I like that," she said in K'ymael. "Gang up on me why don't you?"
Kristram sighed and stood, mug in hand. "You know I don't understand K'ymael all that well," he said with a mournful expression. As he stood before us, about to go join his brother, my bandaged wrist caught his attention. He put his mug back on the table and knelt before me, taking my wrist in his hand. "What is this?" he asked, his voice low and angry.
I didn't understand his anger at first, but then it dawned on me that he thought I had made the cut myself, as K'ymael warriors had been known to do in the past, in order to die before capture. "Aelyn and I were sparring, and her sword slipped," I told him. "It's really only a scratch."
"Are you sure?" he asked, concern evident in his voice. "Maybe you should have the doctor look at it."
"I already have," I smiled at him. "And he bandaged it and gave me some salve to put on it."
"If you're sure you're all right," he said, his voice trailing off.
"I am," I told him insistently. "Now go talk to Quinn as you were going to." I followed him with my eyes as he walked over to stand with his brother by the window.
"Ishelyn." My sister's voice brought me back to reality, and I flushed as I realized that I had been staring at Kristram.
"What is it?" I asked her, hoping I didn't look as flustered as I felt.
"What's going on with you and Kristram?" she asked me, not bothering to hide her grin.
"There's absolutely nothing going on," I replied, trying my hardest not to sound like I wanted there to be something going on. "Kristram sees me as nothing more than your little sister."
"I think that maybe he sees you as more than just my little sister," she said with a smirk.
"Don't be foolish, Aelyn," I told her.
"I like this kind of foolishness," she said. "Besides my baby, nothing would make me happier."
"Oh hush," I told her, cuddling baby Kaeyla close to me and leaning back in my chair, watching the flames of fire dance merrily in the hearth.
A swift, harsh knock on the door brought an abrupt halt to all conversation as we turned our attention in the direction of the sound. The door creaked open, revealing a tattered and bloody K'ymaeli warrior standing wearily in the doorway. Aelyn immediately rose as the soldier spoke.
"I'm sorry to disturb your tea, cousin of mine," the man said wearily. "But I have some news for you and your husband that really cannot wait."
"Roahin," Aelyn breathed. "I did not think that I would see you alive again." I was frozen in my spot, trying to remember the last time I has seen my cousin. Since our sister Lylea had died, Roahin had not been seen or heard of in K'ymael. There were rumors that the death of his betrothed had unhinged him so badly that he had gone insane, and even darker rumors that he had joined the ranks of our enemies.
"I have been stationed for the last three years in Caopathia," he told her, naming a country to the west of us that had been on peaceful terms with both K'ymael and Dramar for years. "For three years I have sent back word of unrest on the borders, especially on the northern border of Dramar. But now I have serious news for you, if you and your husband would care to listen in private."
For the first time since Roahin's unexpected arrival, Gareth spoke. "Whatever information you have can be shared with everyone in this room," he said with authority.
"Not quite everyone," Myren interjected. "Ilona, take your brothers and go to the nursery. I'll come for you when it's time for dinner."
While the children were leaving Gareth arranged the chairs into a circle and Aelyn handed Roahin a mug of tea. We all rearranged ourselves, and as we sat down, Roahin noticed me for the first time. "Ishelyn," he said, "last time I saw you, you were a child. I did not realize how old you had gotten."
"It's been a long time," I agreed quietly.
"Tell us your news, Roahin," Gareth commanded gently, calling a close to our reminiscing.
"The last few months have been turbulent on the borders of Dramar and Caopathia," he began. "There have been several instances of violence as the Caopathians have attempted to move into Dramarian towns and set up their own rule there. The captains stationed in the west have no doubt sent you reports to this effect."
"Indeed they have," Aelyn said, "but they have also sent reports that they have the situation under control."
"This is no longer the case," Roahin told her. "The Caopathian army has started a full scale invasion into Dramarian towns in the west. Resisters are killed, and the army garrison in the west was burnt to the ground yesterday. They sent me to bring the news because my horse is the swiftest."
"What do the Caopathians hope to gain by this?" Gareth asked.
"They have been posting signs in the towns they conquer to the effect that our government had been corrupted by the joining of the Dramarian king and the K'ymaeli queen. They plan on marching all the way to the fortress to take command of Dramar."
"Have they started moving on the city yet?" Transt asked.
"I do not believe so," Roahin replied, "but my information on that matter is piecemeal at best."
Gareth turned to me then. "What are our chances of securing aid from the K'ymaeli government?"
"Slim to none," I replied. "Since my father turned the throne over to my brother, there has been a renewal of anti-peace feeling. I do not think that my brother would willing send troops here to die for a country not their own."
"Damn him," Aelyn cursed softly. "He knows we would do anything for him."
"What does this all mean?" Myren asked plaintively. I had forgotten that she was still unused to conferring with the king and his captains.
It was Kristram who answered with the words that lay heavy on all our hearts and tongues. "It means war," he said grimly.