Chapter 1

Yssile crashed through the unlatched barn door and skidded to a panting halt in the empty yard.

“T’bryn!  T’bryn!  I swear by the Egg that when I catch you …”

A faint giggle floated from the direction of the smithy.  The young girl hid a quick smile, knowing she’d soon realize her revenge for the large pile of hay dropped on her in ambush.  She shook her blouse in a futile effort to dislodge the bits and pieces that always seemed to find their way into the most inconvenient places.  “Tarsus’ blue balls … I’m going to be itchy for the rest of the day,” she moaned.

“Whoa!  Language, young lady!  I wouldn’t want to be you if T’aryn had heard that.”

Flushing, she straightened and turned to face the deeply tanned man who had followed her from the barn.  “But she didn’t hear it, and if she had, I’d explain that I’d learned it first from you, Dyrsa.”  She giggled, “But it is my favorite.”

Dyrsa chuckled as he threw the two coils of heavy rope he was carrying into a nearby freight wagon.  “Oh, she’d believe that, all right.  But it still won’t save you a lecture on the comportment of proper young ladies.”

“Who says she’s ‘proper?’ teased Urlanth, following his twin brother from the barn.  “I’ll admit she might be a lady … in the strictest sense, ‘cuz she’s a girl and all, but ‘proper’ might be stretching things a bit.”  Shrugging his shoulders to draw Dyrsa’s attention to the collection of axes and saws he was carrying, he asked, “Help me with these?”

Dyrsa shot a grin over his shoulder at Yssile as he stepped to help his brother place the tools in the wagon.  “You might be on to something there, brother.  I don’t recall ever seeing a lady in public with straw in her hair, nor do I recollect ever hearing one swear like a Dobrani sailor.”

The girl stood with her mouth open in astonishment.  “But … I … T’bryn, he …

“What about T’bryn?”  An elegant woman glided around the corner of the barn, her attention focused on the contents of a large basket hanging from her elbow.  Catching sight of the disheveled girl, she stopped.  “Yssile, what in the world … ?”  Her initial concern vanished as she considered the possibilities.

“Ah.  I take it that T’bryn’s involved?”

“Involved in what?” asked a third man leaving the barn with his arms full of harness and followed by a tractable quartet of heavy draft horses.  He waited as the huge steeds moved to stand in their respective places in the hitch, then began to connect their harness.  Dyrsa and Urlanth moved to help and noting their mirth, he half-turned to find Yssile.  “Oh.”  Turning back to the twins, he winked and asked, “Our princess choosing to go with a new ‘I’m a walking hayrick’ look today?”

Mortified by the teasing and not happy with the prospect of scratching away the remainder of the day, Yssile stomped her foot.  “Tarsus’ blue balls, what the hells is it with men?” She clapped a hand to her mouth, realizing her blunder.  “T’aryn, help me!” she wailed, hoping in the stress of the moment that her language would be overlooked.

T’aryn came closer and reached to tug at a strand of hay entangled in Yssile’s hair.  She sighed, dropping her hand to fold her arms.  “Well, it’s not like your hair doesn’t have a life of its own, Yssile.  I’m afraid it’s going to take some time and hard brushing to get it back to normal.  Time we can also use to address your language, young miss.”

The girl winced, then spun and shouted in the direction of the smithy, “That’s it, T’bryn.  I’m not playing anymore.  Come out now!

A peal of young laughter answered her demand.

“You are so dead, T’bryn!”  She cast a last look of appeal to the adults, then took off running in the direction of the smithy.

“She has broken her fast, right?” T’ighe asked, causing a snort to burst from Urlanth.

“Stop,” T’aryn replied, delivering a light slap to her husband’s shoulder.  “She’s embarrassed enough and you three  aren’t helping.”  Unable to help herself, she let a small laugh escape.  “For T’bryn’s sake, I hope it was worth it.”  She handed her heavy basket to Dyrsa who lifted it into the wagon.  “Thank you.  That should be enough for your mid-day meal and …”

“Sweets?” Dyrsa pleaded.

“… and afternoon sweets.”

Dyrsa pumped a fist in celebration.  Yeah!

“So what caused this particular battle?” T’aryn asked, nodding in the direction of the smithy.   She paused and listened to the occasional muffled epithet.  “Other than the obvious hay attack.”  She winced as Yssile shouted a particularly inventive curse. “That girl …”  T’aryn shook her head.

Dyrsa chuckled.  “Oh, it might have had something to do with her being in one of her ‘I’m Queen of all I survey’ moods this morning.”  He shrugged, closing the last of the harness buckles.  “T’bryn just decided to take her down a few notches.”

“Which I must say was artful in its execution,” added Urlanth, “the boy shows promise.”

T’aryn glared at the trio.  “For which I’m sure I’ve you three to thank.”  As one, the men found their attention diverted to the intricacies of horses and harness.  “Hmph.  I thought so.”

A metallic clatter returned her attention to the smithy.  “Those two absolutely adore one another but I swear there are times when I question who will survive whom.”

The twins shared a glance.  “My wager is on Yssile … older, more experienced,” Dyrsa offered.

Urlanth replied, “Nah.  As I said, the boy shows promise.”

T’ighe growled at another crash, louder than the first.  “Neither of them if they keep wrecking my forge.”  He took a step in the direction of the smithy, only to have T’aryn stop him with a hand on his chest.

“I’ll take care of them.  The day’s wasting away and if we’re to have firewood enough to see us through the winter, you three need to be on your way.”  She distracted her husband with a kiss to his cheek.

T’ighe stopped and gave her an affronted look.  “I suppose you think that little peck was enough to stop me from exerting a father’s righteous wrath and get me on my way?

“I suppose you think that was a kiss?  He captured T’aryn in a rough embrace.  “Woman, let me show you what a kiss is like!”  Belying his pretense of insult, his lips were soft, wet, lingering and full of future promise.  T’aryn surrendered to the primal force that was her man.  She curled one hand behind his neck to draw him closer, the other caressing his stubbled cheek.  T’ighe’s right hand dropped from her waist to her hip, drifting round to cup a …

Papa!  W’atchoo doing to Mama?”

Laughter exploded from the couple and they touched their foreheads to one another.  “Yssile’s going to have to get in line,” T’aryn said in a throaty whisper, “I’m going to strangle that boy!”  Reluctantly, they parted and looked around to find their accuser.

Yssile exploded from the depths of the forge, spying her prey on the roof by the chimney.  There you are, you little imp!  When I get done with you …”

Wide-eyed, T’bryn realized his error.  “Uh oh.”  He scrambled from his perch and disappeared.

His father chuckled.  “He’s fast for four-year-old, is he not?”

Almost four,” T’aryn agreed, “And much too smart for his own good … or ours.”  She gave a soft sigh, “he’s not average, our T’bryn.  More like four going on forty-four.”  Arm in arm, they turned back to the wagon to find the brothers leaning against it with folded arms, content to watch the small family.

“You two should get a room.  Dyrsa and I can bring in the wood, y’know,” ventured Urlanth.

His twin jerked upright and gave him an incredulous look.  “By the Egg, Urlanth!  Are you insane or just stupid?  We already have one T’bryn … do you believe we could survive two?

Urlanth blanched.  He looked at Dyrsa in a panic.  “She’s fertile?  Oh, Egg …”  He moved quickly to separate the laughing couple and pushed T’ighe to the wagon.  “Come on, come on, let’s go … can’t waste the day … work to do, lots of work.”  He looked back over his shoulder at T’aryn.  “Can’t say when we’ll be back.  Lots of work.  He’ll be tired … probably too tired to, uh … y’know …”  Urlanth’s agitated ramble ground to a halt as he realized the other three were almost helpless with laughter.

“Oh, get on with y’selves.  It’s just that the boy is a handful … “

“Trust me, we have noticed that,” agreed his brother, throwing a bundle of steel and leather at Urlanth.  “Doesn’t mean we love him any less.”  He picked up another bundle and unwrapped it reveal a sturdy baldric supporting a katzbalger and matching dagger.  Dyrsa slipped it over his head and wriggled a bit to have it settle.  He looked to find his two companions similarly armed, with T’ighe adding a short but powerful bow and a quiver of arrows.

T’aryn shook her head as she watched the three men.  “After all this time …”

T’ighe grimaced in sympathy.  “I know, but better to have it and not need it …”

“… than to need it and not have it,” finished his wife glumly, “I know, I know!  I keep praying that we’ve been forgotten.”

“Forgotten … for the time being … but I’m afraid we’ll never be forgiven.”

T’ighe walked to a position roughly two rods in front of the wagon hitch, the brothers flanking to either side.  With a parting look to his wife, he caught the eye of the lead horse and bid, “Come.”  The team immediately stepped off and the wagon began to roll forward.

Dyrsa called back to T’aryn, “Smoked boar for dinner, aye?”

She waved, “I promised, didn’t I?  It’s been on smoke since last evening.”  Dyrsa pumped his fist in celebration before returning his attention to the road ahead.

“Oh, and Urlanth?” T’aryn called in a syrupy voice.

“Yeah?”

She hitched her skirt to a hip, displaying a well-tanned and shapely leg.  “T’ighe has never been too tired to, uh, y’know …”

His face red, Urlanth snapped his eyes back to the path while his brother brayed at his discomfort.  T’ighe offered a parting wave, accompanied by a husbandly leer which warmed T’aryn and heightened Urlanth’s embarrassment.

T’aryn watched until the dense forest swallowed the wagon, then for a few moments more.  Memories warred, darting in and out, some a sharp stab, but others … most … a stalwart shield against those that would seek to haunt her.

“Tarsus’ blue balls, T’bryn!  How’d you get through there?”

T’aryn was snatched from her reverie, thrust back into a mother’s reality.  She chuckled as she began to walk in the direction of Yssile’s latest outburst.  It’s more a question of whether I’ll survive them.  A cacophony of feathered fury from the chicken coop caused her to change her mind, choosing instead to check the progress of the night’s promised dinner.  Pick your battles, T’aryn … after all, Yssile had a big breakfast, right?  She loosed a most un-ladylike snort.  No reason to worry about that he’d only give her indigestion.

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