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Introduction:

This contains all the chapters
Chapter one

I stared at the manor house of the cruel noble intently. I had been watching it every night for the last week. Soon it would be midnight and I had decided to move by then. Silently I moved to the edge of the roof and swung over to carefully make my way down the side of the building.

Keeping to the shadows I crossed to the outer wall of the manor where I paused to listen. Silently I climbed the wall and pulled my body up to lay flat on top. It was only a moment later that the sentry walked around the corner and slowly made his way past me.

As soon as he rounded the far corner I slid off the top of the wall and quietly climbed down to crouch behind a large bush. Staying in the shadows, I crossed to the manor itself. Moving along the building to the grate I knew I would find, I knelt and pried it open. Dropping flat onto the ground I crawled into the empty space, feet first.

Once I was in, I reached up and pulled the grate closed. Moving backwards I came to the open space I was expecting. Slowly I stood and turned in the tight space until I faced the back wall. Reaching up just over my head I found the lip of the air shaft and pulled myself up and in.

Crawling forward until I came to a tee junction I paused. I knew the left turn went to the back of the fireplace in the hall of the manor, but that was not my goal. Turning right, I crawled until I came to a wall. I rolled onto my back and sat up. I looked up into the inky blackness and turned sideways.

Placing my back against the wall, I squatted and slid my feet to the far wall. Keeping the pressure, I slowly made my way up the shaft. At the next opening I paused to get my breath and then moved into the crawl space. From here I had to be more careful. Slowly, I inched the five feet to the grate I was expecting.

Staying back from the opening, I watched the hallway beyond and waited. I timed the guard as he made his rounds of the hall beyond. When I had the timing down, I waited for the guard to round the far corner of the hall. Moving to the grate, I used a small flask to oil the hinge pin and then opened it and slid out. Quietly I closed it and turned to the first room on the left.

It only took a moment to pick the simple lock and silently open the door. Slipping into the room I paused, it was dark, but some of the light leaked into the room from the hall. The only thing in the room was a few crates and a pile of rags. Quietly I closed the door until only a crack remained. It was a few minutes before the guard again made his rounds. As he rounded the far corner, I opened the door and made my way down the hall to the door I had been looking for.

It had a large lock on a hasp and it was as simple for me to open as the door had been. A few seconds later I was opening the door and stepping into the room. Looking around I made a quick survey of the contents. There were several stands of armor along the back wall and half dozen medium sized chests to my right.

Moving to the chests I opened them to see the contents of each. This varied from copper pennies to half pennies, the last two chests held silver and gold. The last chest was the smallest which made sense, because the gold coins were the most valuable.

Picking it up, I looked around and moved back to the door. In the hall I set the chest down, closed the door and relocked it. Picking up the chest I moved back into the first room and set the chest down again. Listening at the door again I waited for the guard to return.

When the guard returned this time, there was another guard with him and they moved slower. When they turned the corner, I opened the door and moved back to the treasure room. Opening the lock quickly, I crossed to the stands of armor, (all were plate armor except one and that was the one I choose). Removing it from the stand, I rolled it up and put it in my knapsack.

Looking back at the stand I saw two swords there. One was a long sword and the other was a short sword. I shrugged and grabbed both and put them under my belt sash before moving back to the chest. Setting the knapsack down, I started scooping the silver coins into it on top of the chain mail.

When it was almost full I stopped, (there was not that much left in the chest). Closing the knapsack, I slung the heavy bag over my shoulder and left the room. Turning, I locked the door before retreating back to the storage room. As I was closing the door I heard the guard returning. Listening, I waited for the guard to leave.

I set the knapsack down and stuffed rags into the top. Putting the knapsack back on, I picked the small chest of gold coins up and left the room. Closing the door behind me, I crossed to the grate and opened it. I slid into the opening feet first, pulling the chest and knapsack in behind me. Once I was all the way in, I made sure the grate was closed.

My way out was a lot slower. At the grate into the yard I waited for the guard and then slipped out, closing the grate behind me. Staying in the shadows, I crossed to the wall. Setting the chest down, I unwrapped the cord from around my waist. After securing the chest, I climbed the wall and pulled the chest up to the top of the wall.

I lowered the chest down the outside of the wall and released the cord. Quickly I climbed down the wall and untied the cord before wrapping it back around my waist. Silently I slipped back into the city, just another shadow in the night. I made my way towards the southern quarter.

I reached an old inn that had burned down and slipped into the courtyard. I quietly made my way up through the rubble strewn steps that had once led to a second floor. At the top I put my back to the wall and inched my way along a narrow ledge. When I reached the large hole, I carefully stepped back and into the room. The wall looked solid, but when I lifted what looked like a solid beam there was a click. Pushing on the center of the wall, it easily moved back several feet before stopping.

Home; the room was large. It had once been part of the inn. There was a large bed, (left over from the days when the inn still stood) a table with two chairs and two cedar chests. There was another doorway that I made my way to. Opening it, I stepped in and set the small chest down; it had grown heavier with every step of the way.

With this score I knew I would not have to work for a long while. I swung the knapsack off and moved to another chest. Taking the rags out; I poured the silver coins into the small chest. I took the chain mail out and shook a few loose coins into the chest. I moved across the room and placed the mail on a stand.

Looking around there were two other sets there as well as several swords of different types. I placed the two new swords to the side. There was a pike and some staffs as well as several bows on the wall. I stretched and left the room, it had been a long night.

I pushed the wall closed and pulled down on the locking latch. I moved to one of the chests and stripped out of the dark clothing. Folding them up, I placed them in the chest and took out soft, grey colored clothing. After dressing again, I lay back on the bed and rested; falling asleep even before I expected.

I woke to the sounds of a busy street and lay staring up at the ceiling. It was time for me to move on again. This time I was thinking the coast would be nice, maybe south to White cliff or even Dune Harbor.

I rolled out of bed, first I had a debt to pay and a scroll to collect and maybe a treasure. I walked into the other room and opened the chest of gold and started counting. When I was done, I put the pile of coins in a bag and grabbed an Ironwood staff just in case. I wrapped an old shirt around the bag and left. On the street I waited in the shadows until I was sure no one was watching.

I stepped out and walked back towards the center of the city. I slipped into the shadows of an alley behind a large stone building. I tapped on a door twice and waited. A minute later I tapped once and it swung open. I scanned the room and tensed, three men stood in the room, only one I knew. He sat back down as I stepped in and closed the door. He looked at me, “Well?”

I looked at the others and back at him, “The scroll?”

He picked something up and waved it at me. I watched as the two men tensed, “Open it and show me.”

He cleared his throat, “Show me the gold.”

I looked at him and then dropped the bag. They could all hear the coins as the bag hit. “Open the scroll.”

The man by the door laughed as he pulled a long dagger, “This was just too easy.”

I smiled, watching the man with the scroll, “You really do not want to do this.”

He shrugged, “Live and learn kid.”

As the man with the dagger stepped closer my staff struck out slamming into the side of his head. He flew back against the wall and slid down it dead, his skull crushed. “I already have. Now give me the scroll or I will kill you.”

The other man leapt at me, a long piece of wood swinging from his hand. I sidestepped and blocked. Bringing the other end of the staff down in another sickening crunch and he dropped to the floor. I looked at the thieves merchant, “The scroll.”

He licked his lips and tossed the scroll, “We still have a deal, right?”

I opened the scroll and scanned it before putting it away in my shirt. I looked at the merchant and picked up the bag of gold, “You should have kept to our bargain.”

I opened the door and left, the door swinging loosely behind me. I walked into the marketplace and crossed to a small corral with three horses. I looked at the merchant, “Feed or scrub.”

He blinked and stood up, “Scrub.”

I opened the bag and took out a dozen coins. I set them on the corral post one at a time. When I finished, he looked up from the coins. I took out four more and held my hand out, “You can not remember me and need to go back to your cottage.”

I dropped the coins into his hand. He grinned, “What horses?”

I smiled as I led the horses out and across to another merchant. An hour later I was tying them up in the inn’s courtyard, thirty minutes after that I was leading them out the South gate. I stopped an hour before dark. I unsaddled the horses and tethered them. Starting a small fire, I sat back while dinner cooked.

I pulled the scroll out and opened it. I followed the marked trails on the map until I found the symbol I was looking for. A Carvanesse over a week’s travel from here, the Carvanesse were a kind of way station for merchants hundreds of years ago. The one I had been looking for had been reported as having caved in more than a thousand years ago. I knew something others did not though. All Carvanesses were enspelled to resist things like cave ins, but this one had been enspelled by a dwarven archmage.

I put the scroll away and finished dinner. In the morning, I again saddled the horses and started walking. It took me nine days to reach the area I sought and another two days to find the rockslide that hid the entrance. I set up a hidden camp not far from the entrance and put the horses on long picket lines.

I spent the afternoon setting snares and relaxing. Early in the morning I was up and working on the slide, moving rocks to the side. It was back breaking work that lasted four days. The hard part was having the patients to wait after the entrance was uncovered and opening it further so that I could just walk in.

The morning of the fifth day I slept until the sun was up. I picked up the small, dark lantern and walked to the entrance. Inside the opening, I stopped to glance around, there were skeletons littering the floor. That was the first thing I needed to check. Moving into the Carvanesse, I started checking bodies for weapons and money or jewelry.

When I was finally done, I moved to the enclosed animal park. I stopped at the entrance and looked at the scattered remains. There were no packs or anything that could be salvaged. I shook my head and moved to the next one, it should have been for special animals like Battle trained horses.

I stopped before going through the dark doorway. I could feel something not right ahead of me and opened the lantern wider. Not two feet in front of me a dark haze appeared that seemed to stretch across the entrance to the private stalls. I followed it from wall to wall without touching it.

I knew it was some type of spell. I did not know what would happen if I tried to pass through, so I decided to leave it for now. I turned and looked across the cavern and decided to try the common areas for the merchants and their guards. In the doorway to the common area, I stood and looked around, the dark lantern opened as wide as it would go.

Bodies and debris were scattered thick across the floor as if a great battle had been fought here. My search of the bodies and debris was rewarded when I found five bodies. As soon as I saw them I knew I had been right about the cave in. The bodies were Kittling. In ancient times they were hired at very high prices to guard or protect.

Their scale armor was in perfect shape as if time did not effect it. Each set of armor was a solid black with an engraved crest across the scales. When I picked up and checked the weapons scattered across the floor, I found most worthless except the ones for the five Kittlings. Each of those weapons had a crest below the hilts to match the armor.

I sat back on my heels to think. I could sell these for a small fortune but it did not feel right. Kittlings valued and passed their armor and weapons on from generation to generation. The small Kittling Empire was over a month away and on top of that it was supposed to be closed to outsiders. I sighed whispering to myself and maybe to the five dead Kittlings, “I will take them home.”

There seemed to be a lightening of the darkness around me with those words. I moved forward and carefully removed the armor and a set at a time took it out to my camp. When I returned after the last set, I started checking the private quarters. The first couple of dozen, I was rewarded with personal jewelry and stashes of gold coins.

When I finished and moved to the private quarters of the merchants themselves, I was surprised. Inside the first room, I found a young man sitting cross legged with a mage staff standing next to him. It did not look like he was dead but he was not moving either. I moved closer and sat looking at him. The more I looked, the more I saw. First the man’s body was faintly opaque. Second, there was a sense of waiting about him. Third, even though he looked it, he was not just a man.

I sighed and turned my attention to the staff. My eyes would lose focus if I looked at the head of it. It also felt as if it were glowing but in a color I could not see. I closed my eyes and tried to remember what my father had taught me. Finally I cleared my thoughts and only pictured the man in front of me, “Mage!”

There was a stirring and the image in my mind seemed to open its eyes. He smiled slowly, “So, it is finally time.”

The image vanished and I heard a stir in front of me. I opened my eyes to see the mage looking back at me. He smiled, “It has been a long time and finally my wait is over. The treasure you seek is here youngling, but so is another fate. Once your family stood above all, but they turned their backs on friends when they had need. I offer you the chance to regain that honor.”

I smiled, “I am a thief. What do I know of honor?”

He looked into my eyes, “Than why return the armor to those lost?”

I looked away, “The dead deserve peace.”

When he still did not say anything I sighed and nodded. The mage stood, “Come youngling, I have someone for you to meet.”

I stood and followed him, surprised to find the Carvanesse full of light. I stopped to look at the bright mage lights along the walls. The mage stopped and looked at me amused, “You can take those with you when you leave.”

I looked at him and I stepped closer to look at one, “We no longer have these. They were just in stories told about ancient times.”

The Mage stepped next to me and lifted the small lantern from the wall and handed it to me. “To turn it on or off, touch the small silver engraving. Set it in the sun to charge.”

He turned and started to the next opening. After only a moment I followed and stopped next to him as he stood looking into the doorway. The doorway had another of those dark hazes across it. He looked at me, “She is beautiful isn’t she.”

I looked at the haze and back at him, “Who?”

He laughed as he turned back to the door, “My apologizes, I forgot you could not see through the veil.”

I heard him murmuring and felt something tingling in my bones. The mage glanced at me, “A resonances? Interesting.”

I was not listening to him though, the haze was gone and a young Kittling woman stood in the room. I could not take my eyes off her. She had grey fur with black stripes on her head. I had a feeling I knew her and yet I did not. I could feel my heartbeat quicken and a pulling in the center of my chest. Finally I tore my eyes away, but the pulling was still with me. I looked at the mage, “What did you do to me?”

The mage blinked and looked at me and then glanced back into the room. The Kittling woman had not moved. He looked back at me, “I have not done anything. What does it feel like?”

It was a struggle to keep my eyes from looking back at the Kittling. “I… like something is pulling at my chest. My heart is racing and I am having to fight to keep from looking back into the room at the Kittling.”

The mage looked at me closer, his eyes narrowing. Finally he straightened and smiled gently, “I am sorry youngling. I did not know you had Kittling blood. I was going to ask you to… return Talia, but it appears fate has something else in mind for her and you. What you feel is the first part of Kittling bonding.”

I looked back into the face of the Kittling, “But I am…”

The mage laid his hand on my shoulder, “You have Kittling blood. Mages created Kittlings, but we have never been able to control or fully understand their bonding.”

He removed his hand and walked into the room and stopped next to the Kittling. I heard and felt his murmur and then the Kittling blinked and started to turn her head to the mage but stopped. She was looking right at me, “Who?”

The mage put his hand on her shoulder, “I did not know Talia. It has been a long long time. He has Kittling blood, so he is descended from your kind.”

I watched as she sighed, still looking at me, “At least father is no longer here to tell me that it is what I deserve.”

The mage grinned and looked back at me, “Your name youngling?”

I stirred and slowly walked towards them, “Edward Shadow Walker.”

The mage smiled, but the Kittling gasped and tore her eyes away. She looked at the mage, “Shadow Walker!”

The mage nodded, “So it would seem.”

The Kittling looked back at me as I stopped in front of her. Slowly she moved as if forcing each step. As she circled me, I could smell her light scent. Finally she was back in front of me. She sighed and nodded as if to herself. “I am Talia Quick Strike of the clan Osia. Heir to my father’s throne or I was.”

I wanted to reach out and touch her but I held myself still. “I do not know much about your people. They are far away and have closed their borders to all outsiders. What is this I feel, this bond the mage said I have?”

I watched as her green slit eyes narrowed and she turned slowly to the mage. He shrugged and she turned back to me. She raised her hand to cup the side of my face. The shock that went through my body was like nothing I had ever felt. I knew my body temperature had gone up as if I had a fever.

My vision seemed to change slightly and sharpen. I knew my hearing had also changed and then there was the smell, the sweet musky woman smell. Mostly, I had become excited as if I were with a woman and… I shook my head and stepped back. My legs were weak and I slowly sank to the floor.

I watched as she slowly knelt in front of me, “Edward? You are going into bond shock. Soon you will not be able to control your body’s actions. For you, this is a very deep bonding. You may go into a male rut. Focus on my face and concentrate as hard as you can. I need you to wait until I am ready.”

She stood and looked at the mage as she was stripping off clothing and armor, “Leave mage. You can not be here. Thank you for saving me.”

It felt like my body was vibrating as I smelled the light scented musk coming from Talia. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the mage bow and leave. The fur on Talia’s body was as stripped as her pretty head with a long black tail that swung softy back and forth at her ankles.

As she turned and started pulling bedding out of a pack I had not even seen, I heard myself growl. Talia glanced at me and then tried to go faster. When she had finally rolled the bedding onto the pallet at the side of the room, she looked back at me. “Edward, come here.”

Before I knew it I was moving. Talia’s eyes widened almost in fright, “Edward, stop!”

I stopped moving, fighting my own body. This was not like me, I wanted Talia bad. I had never been with a woman and would never have even thought of… Talia sighed deeply and moved back on to the bed, “Edward, I have not been with a male. I doubt if you can even talk right now, but please try to…”

I moved before she finished talking. My arms went around her as I held her against me. It took several tries before I was able to growl, “Talia, take my clothes off and when I lay down, tie me to the bed. Do not let me do this.”

Slowly, fighting myself, I released her and got off the bed. Talia looked at me only a moment and then moved. Quickly my clothes fell to the floor as she almost ripped them from me. When she was done, I moved jerkily onto the bed and laid back. Talia had disappeared and was back in seconds with a light rope. I watched as she first tied my wrists and then a little slower, my ankles.

When she was done, she climbed onto my shaking body and looked into my face. “Edward, we have to do this. If you do not get this release it will get worse. It will break your mind and then kill you.”

I swallowed and nodded as my vision faded.

Chapter two

I woke to darkness and the pleasant weight on my chest of a woman. My sense of smell was sharper and I could smell the pleasant reek of our bodies. I cleared my mind; the pulling in my chest was gone. In its place was something else though, some how I knew it was a connection to Talia, “Talia?”

She stirred on my chest and a moment later a mage lantern beside us flared to life. Her tired, sleepy face came into my vision, “Edward, how do you feel?”

I smiled as I breathed in the beauty of her face, “Tired, sore, hungry.”

She laughed and lightly shook me, “You scared the hell out of me. I did not think anyone could keep control that long. When it finally took you, you passed out. I had to… finish for you, but your body kept demanding more. I was afraid the madness had taken you.”

I smiled back at her, “How long?”

She seemed to think about it, “A day and night.”

My wrists strained against the rope, “Am I safe.”

She nodded and moved off me. A moment later I was free and sat up. I looked at Talia as she stood in front of me with her head down. I held out my hand and she took it. I pulled her to the bed and she sat down beside me, “Now that I am sane, tell me what this bond is and what happened to me.”

She laughed, “It is a little late but… What the bond is, is a connection between us, between our souls. You feel the bond much stronger than I do. Sometimes if the male has a strong enough sense of smell and the female is… in season, he will go into shock as his body changes. Sometimes that change is enough of a shock to push him into what is called a male rut, like an animal. It usually only lasts a couple of hours though.”

I looked at her, “but I was out for a day and night.”

She leaned against me laughing, “I guess you really wanted to get me pregnant.”

I put my arm around her and lightly caressed her, “Than this bond means we are mates?”

She looked up into my face and laughed, “No, for that you have to beat me in a mating challenge.”

I continued caressing her, somehow I knew she was enjoying it, “And what is a mating challenge?”

She smiled, “plotting already? A mating challenge is a duel. With one such as I, it means with swords.”

I leaned against her and kissed her before leaning back, “One such as you?”

Her eyes glittered, “a Battle Maid.”

I laughed and gently pushed her to her feet, “Put your armor back on, you will need it.”

She laughed as she stepped away from me, “I may be young, but I have already had seven challenges.”

I grinned at her as I started dressing, “boasting before a fight is not good luck.”

She only laughed as we both dressed. I helped her carry her packs out of the Carvanesse and to my camp. I checked the horses and found that they had been moved. When I turned back to the camp the mage was in front of me, “I will be leaving; I wanted to make sure you survived. I removed the mage shield and the holding spells on the horses in the Carvanesse. The treasure you sought is in the first merchant goods room. (He glanced at the camp) Use your bond for the challenge.”

With that he just seemed to fade away. I walked back to the camp and to my packs. After opening a pack, I pulled two short swords out and looked at Talia. “Well my future mate, are you ready?”

Talia laughed as she pulled the slim crescent blade from over her shoulder. “Of course my bond slave.”

I laughed as I backed out into the clearing. I watched as she followed moving easily. I felt the bond between us and smiled, the mage was right. I shifted so that Talia would have me on her off side and waited.

I felt the bond twitch before she even moved and stepped to the side, the sword in my right hand moving to block even as I suddenly shifted even more. Her sword met mine and my left sword flash as it circled my hand and then come down on top of her sword and I turned and stepped. My right hand sword spun as she jerked to step back.

My right sword stopped against her throat. Talia froze in shock, I lowered my sword and stepped close, “Talia my Battle Maid, I claim you as my mate.”

She looked into my face as I slowly leaned close and kissed her. When I pulled back, I smiled and turned away. I walked back to my packs and put the swords away. Talia stopped behind me as I continued to dig through my packs. Finally I stood holding soap and a towel. I looked at her worried face. “I stink; you can join me if you behave.”

Talia cleared her throat, “I am Battle trained and you…”

I smiled and stepped next to her and put my mouth close to her ear, “I am a trained Armsmaster.”

She jerked her head back to look at me and then suddenly she laughed as she started throwing clothing and armor away from herself. She stepped close to me again, “My father is rolling around in his grave laughing right now. He always said I would get what I deserve.”

I grinned and turned to the small game trail that led to the spring fed pool I had found. When we got there, I undressed, watching Talia as she walked calmly into the cold water. Walking into the water I shivered and held out the soap to Talia who smiled at me and took it. While she was washing my back, I could hear her purring and looked back at her contented expression.

When we got out, she turned to me and embraced me. She looked into my face, “Bond Mate, you must decide if I take the Simpa root. I have put it off, but I can not wait much longer.”

I looked back at her. Simpa root has been used since forever to prevent a girl from getting pregnant. “How old are you Talia?”

She lightly scratched my chest with her claws, before looking back into my face, “I am sixteen. I have been a Battle Maid for a year.”

She looked a little younger; girls were normally married years before they reached her age. They would probably have had two or even three children by then too. I turned and picked the towel up and started drying her. When I finished, I gathered my clothing and led her back to camp and sat her at the dead fire.

I got the fire going and slipped back into pants and another shirt before setting things out. Finally I knew I could not wait any longer and looked into her face, “Talia, you are a Battle Maid. To me, that means you know how to look at a situation and make a judgment. I am missing information. The mage said I have Kittling blood, but I know nothing about it. I do not know… I do not know what our children would be like. I do not know how the children will affect you or being a Battle Maid.”

She smiled as she absently started moving things around to cook above the fire. “Children for a Battle Maid, means she must wait for weaning before she can even go back to training. As for our children, they could be either kittling or… human.”

I glanced at her occasionally as we cooked. As we ate, I looked at her, “The children will not be… deformed?”

Talia smiled, “Mages made sure they would not.”

I cleaned up after the meal and sat beside her, “Do you want children Talia? I mean ever.”

She caressed my face and stood to walk to her pack. She pulled a long shirt out and slipped it on and then she bent to pick up a small pouch. When she sat back beside me, she put her hand in mine, “Yes, I want children.”

I looked at the pouch, “Simpa root?”

She nodded and squeezed my hand, “I must know now Bond Mate.”

I sighed and looked into my lap for a moment. I looked back at Talia and shifted to see her better, “Talia, I am twenty years old. I have no property. I have some gold and was looking for treasure when I found you. I do not know if your people will even accept me. I am an Armsmaster trained since I was a baby, but I have nothing. I would love for you to have my children, but I am afraid that doing so would ruin you.”

Talia laughed and squeezed my hand, “Even if I no long stand behind the throne, I am a Battle Maid. You would be accepted for that alone, but you are also an Armsmaster who won his mating challenge. On top of all that, there is one person that would be accepted above all others in my empire. You named yourself Shadow Walker, there is a Kittling prophesy that tells of your coming.”

Talia looked at the fire and tossed the pouch on top. When she looked back at me, I could see humor in her eyes, “Tonight we will mate again, this time you have to stay awake.”

I laughed and pulled her against me. I stood, “The mage said there were still horses in the Carvanesse. I need to bring them out into the light and give them air.”

Talia jumped up, “My Battle Steed!”

I caught her before she rushed back into the Carvanesse. “Clothing? At least some shoes.”

She looked down at herself and then grinned, “I forgot.”

I watched as she pulled a pair of light slippers out and reached for my hand. She grabbed the mage lantern and we walked back into the Carvanesse. As we got closer to the stabling area, we heard the horses moving around. Inside the large paddock Talia handed me the lantern and slowly walked forward. Of the dozen horses here, I saw six that I recognized as Battle trained, five mares and a stallion.

The largest, a steel grey stallion broke away from the others and walked towards Talia. I tensed when I saw him, but Talia laughed and held out her hand, “Did you miss me?”

The horse stopped with his head over her shoulders and let her stroke his neck and scratch behind his ears. Talia turned to me and gestured, “Biscuit, Peace! This is my Bond Mate Edward.”

I stopped next to her as the horse looked at me uncertainly. I glanced at Talia, “Biscuit? You named a Battle horse Biscuit?”

Talia laughed again, “I had to rename him. He would not listen to his trainer.”

I looked back at the horse as he snorted and gently nibbled at Talia’s ear. I looked at the other horses, “Do you think he can bring the other Battle horses out with him. I will catch the others and bring them.”

Talia shook her head, “They will not leave unless their gear is back on them.”

I looked around and held the lantern up. Surprisingly, like in Talia’s room everything seemed intact as it rested on tack stands. It took longer then I thought but finally we had everything back on all the horses. We got them outside and back to the camp where Talia and I removed the tack and armor for the Battle horses. We led them to the small hidden glen where I had picketed my three horses. I added the other horses to the long picket line and left the Battle Steeds alone.

When we returned to the came Talia moved things around and the next thing I knew there was one larger bed. She kept glancing to the side of the camp though and I finally realized what she was looking at. I held out my hand, “Talia?”

She looked at me and smiled as she moved closer. I took her hand and gave it a small squeeze, “I am taking their armor and weapons back to their families.”

She looked at me and back at the armor and weapons, “I will miss them.”

Talia pulled the slippers and shirt off and slipped under a light blanket. I sat next to her and we watched the sky turn a golden color as the sun set. I undressed and Talia gently pulled me under the blanket with her. I woke in the predawn light and turned my head to see Talia watching me.

She smiled, “It was much better with you awake and helping.”

I laughed and turned to face her, “Do you know the way home from here?”

She nodded and I looked at the opening into the Carvanesse. I looked at her, “I will bring the horses back. If you will pack the camp I will take the pack horses back in and bring out your treasure.”

Talia hesitated before running light claws across my chest, “I want you to show me, my companions.”

I nodded, “After we pack up.”

An hour later I was bringing the six pack horses out of the Carvanesse with their packs full. I tethered them next to mine and walked to Talia as she struggled to put armor on one of the Battle mares. I helped her and a few minutes later we finished the last one. She looked at her horse, “Biscuit, Guard.”

I held out my hand looking back at her horse, “There were legends about Kittling Battle horses.”

Talia looked at me as we started walking. I smiled, “They were said to be as smart as people and some were even said to be more deadly than their riders.”

Talia laughed as we entered the Carvanesse, “Perhaps not as smart as people but close, and yes, they are very deadly.”

I slowed as we came close to her dead companions. Talia was silent as we stood over their bodies and quietly removed five twisted rings of grass from her shirt. She placed one on each body and turned to me, “Take me home Bond Mate.”

Two weeks into the journey we knew Talia was pregnant. She woke smiling as I gently teased her and then suddenly went white and scrambled up and ran to the side of our camp to be violently sick. I was beside her a moment later and held her as her body shook. When she was done, she looked into my worried face and laughed. “Nothing to worry about Edward.”

I looked at her skeptically and she laughed and hugged me tight, “I am pregnant!”

I was stunned; I knew she could be, I even expected it, but to actually have it happen was something else. I hugged her back and then something struck me, “um, Talia? How long is a normal Kittling pregnancy?”

Talia laughed and stood, pulling me up with her, “Not as long as a human one. Only seven months.”

She kept glancing at me on the way back into the camp. As she knelt next to the fire she laughed, “You have not asked the most important question.”

I turned from getting dressed, “Which one is that oh lovely Kittling.”

She laughed as she finished gathering the stuff we had left and turned to step close, “How many kits I will litter.”

I froze, “Litter?”

Talia laughed delightedly, “Litter my luckless Bond Mate.”

I smiled at I pulled her against me, “Luckless?”

She kissed me and grinned, “After a Battle Maid weans her young. Her mate takes over the job of raising the kits.”

I looked at her carefully, “Talia my sweet? How many kits do Kittlings normally have?”

Talia laughed and pushed away from me and started walking towards the packs and clean clothes. She paused and looked back, “Normally? Four to six but my family is not normal. We tend to birth six to eight.”

My head spun and then I grinned and ran to catch Talia. I pulled her laughing back towards the bed. “In that case I am going to keep you pregnant.”

Talia laughed and pulled me into an embrace. I kissed her and looked into her eyes, “Seriously? Six or eight?”

Talia nodded and put her head against my chest. I held her tight and then suddenly was pushed from behind. We both stumbled away and Talia started laughing again as Biscuit stood there snorting and shaking his head. I came out of my defensive stand and glared at him, “She is my mate you four legged escapee from the glue shop.”

I looked at Talia, “That is four times now.”

She tried to hide her grin and then laughed again as she stepped close and kissed me. She looked at Biscuit and held out her hand. When he came close, it was to put his head down onto her shoulder. I shook my head and reached out to his ear. He let me pull his head closer, “Biscuit, she carries my young. You kept her safe and away from danger.”

Biscuit pulled his head back to look into mine. Slowly his head came down and both Talia and I knew he was smelling her. When his head came up it was to look into her eyes. When he put his head against hers there were tears in her eyes, “It is true Biscuit, I carry young.”

The next two weeks were humorous. Biscuit treated Talia like she was made of glass and would not let her out of his sight. When Talia was sick both of us were with her, comforting her. He would not let her lead or stray while we rode either.

The day we arrived at the border into the Kittling Empire it had been raining and Biscuit would not even let Talia mount until she had put on a rain poncho so that when we arrived she was covered. The border crossing had a small guard building and two Kittlings stepped out into the light rain to face us.

Talia and I had talked about this, so I leaned forward so they could see me clearly. “My name is Edward Shadow Walker. I have business in your empire.”

They looked at each other and the older of the two walked up along side my horse. He looked from the horse to me and then at Talia. He looked back to me, “Who is the other?”

I leaned down further and whispered, “My Bond Mate, Talia of clan Osia, Princess of the Empire.”

He jerked back and then stepped towards Talia. Only to freeze as six Battle horses turned towards him at almost the same time and seemed to growl. His partner’s hand moved towards his sword but stopped halfway as he realized what he faced. The older guard watched as Talia lowered her hood so that her face was visible. He jerked as if struck and without hesitating he knelt, “Princess.”

Talia touched Biscuits shoulder and for the first time, I watched as he knelt so that Talia could step off. Once Talia was off, he lunged back to his feet. Talia faced the older guard, “May I use your quarters? I have been gone long and have need of information.”

When he rose and turned, Talia looked at me and slightly shook her head. As she turned and followed the guard, Biscuit followed at her shoulder. I looked back at the mares behind me, “Lady, Little Witch?”

As the two mares started moving, Talia looked back with a frown, but Biscuit pushed her shoulder. The younger guard turned his head away, but I could see his smile before he did. Biscuit followed Talia to the door, while Lady went to one side of the building and Little Witch went to the other.

Talia entered the building, but had them leave the door open and stood where I could see her. I watched as she removed her rain poncho and spoke to the guards. I watched the younger guard’s face get a shocked look as the poncho came off. He was the only one I saw so I do not know how the other took her dress.

Talia had started dressing with her armor on the outside of her tunic so that everyone could plainly see her armor. I did notice that the styles of armor between Talia and the two guards were different. I watched as Talia removed a small rolled parchment and handed it to the guard out of sight.

She nodded several times before it was returned. As she slipped the poncho back on, the older guard left the building walking towards me. He stopped beside me and looked up into my face. He glanced back as if to make sure Talia was not near. When he again was looking at me he spoke, “Guard her well Shadow Walker. She is the last of the Imperial clan.”

I glanced at Talia as she was mounting Biscuit by the building, “Who rules?”

He turned to face Talia, but I heard his soft answer, “A regent council.”

On the spur of the moment I made a decision and leaned down towards him, whispering, “My Bond Mate is pregnant. Pass the word to any that will listen, Clan Osia has returned.”

The old guards head had snapped around when I said Talia was pregnant. He looked back at Talia as she rode up. I sat back, looking at her, “I hope you got directions to an Inn or some other place we can sleep out of the rain. I am sure the ladies and Biscuit would like that as well.”

Talia laughed as she covered her head, Biscuit and the five Battle mares had all nodded when I mentioned sleeping out of the rain. As we rode away from the border crossing, I moved closer to Talia, “He said you are the last of your clan.”

Talia lowered her head, “I suspected something.”

I rode closer and she looked up at me, “I am a Battle Maid Edward. You do not have to…”

I reached across to her, “You are also a Kittling who no longer has a clan.”

She nodded and placed her hand on her stomach, “Perhaps Edward, clan Osia now rest within me.”

We rode for another two hours before we came to a small cluster of large buildings. Talia told me this was a way station for travelers and merchants. It seems the border was not completely closed.

We rode into a huge barn that was connected to the Inn. I dismounted even before Damina stopped walking. I quickly went through Talia’s pack and moved to Biscuit. When Talia dismounted, I handed her a hand full of gold coins and the bundle of her dry clothing, “Go get us a room and hopefully a hot bath for you. I do not want to see you until you are warm.”

Talia started to protest but Biscuit started pushing her towards the door while I started removing the mares saddles and armor. I had just removed Damina’s saddle and armor and was moving to Biscuit when two Kittling males came out of the Inn. They spoke loudly about cowardly humans and started walking towards me. When they got closer all the Battle mares moved as if they had planned their movements.

The two Kittlings stood frozen in the middle of five Battle mares as they were surrounded. All five had their teeth bared and the Kittlings knew better than to move. When I had finished removing Biscuit’s saddle and armor he calmly walked to the side of the Battle mares. I looked at the Kittlings and decided to take pity on them.

I walked between two of the mares and looked at them, “My friends do not like anyone threatening me or my bond mate.”

I patted Sofia on her graceful neck, “Come on sweet. Lets get you out of that wet gear.”

I turned away and walked back to the open paddock that held armor stands. The mares waited a moment before backing up and walking back to me. Biscuit made a point of walking between them and me, before turning to face them as if on guard.

I shook my head and went back to removing saddles and armor. The Kittlings backed away from Biscuit and went back into the Inn. I was removing the saddle packs from the other horses when three young Kittlings came out and started towards me. When Biscuit shifted they stopped and looked at him.

After glancing at each other they bowed to Biscuit. They were dressed like workers and were respectful of Biscuit so I called to Biscuit, “Peace Biscuit, I think they are here to bring you something to eat.”

He snorted as if in amusement and side stepped. The three bowed again and walked to me. I noticed the one in the middle was a young maid, “Well younglings?”

The maid smiled, “Your bond mate paid our father for warm mash and dry blankets for the horses.”

I nodded, “When I am done removing their gear, I have to rub them down. After that you can put the blankets on.”

She glanced at the boys, “we can help rub them down if you like?”

I glanced from her to the two closest Battle mares. They nodded slightly, so I smiled at the Kittlings, “It appears my friends like that idea.”

It was only a few minutes later that I turned around and found that I had been invaded. There were probably two dozen younglings around the horses. The youngest looked like maybe five or six and the oldest twelve. I had to smile at the way they fed the warm mash to the battle horses. The younger children would cup both hands in the bucket of mash and hold it up so it could be eaten from their hands.

I was almost finished when Talia came out. She had some type of soft blanket like over tunic wrapped around her and had on a pair of furry slippers on her feet. Biscuit looked at her but did not leave the two little girls that were feeding him. When Talia reached me she laughed, “I was wondering where all the children went to.”

I smiled, “They multiplied while my back was turned.”

I finished and put the brush away and then went through our packs for clothing for both of us. Standing with Talia beside me, we watched as the children fed and covered the horses. I looked at Talia, “How much further to the capital?”

She shrugged, “Five or six days but we have to make a few stops first.”

She looked at me, “Clan Trebel is a day away. It is Fenris’s clan.”

I nodded and started to pull her close before stopping myself. She smiled, “What?”

I grinned back, “You are clean and I smell like wet horse.”

Talia laughed and took my hand. As she turned to pull me to the Inn she called to Biscuit, “Biscuit? Watch the girls tonight.”

When we reached the door she stopped me, “Edward, there is a doctor here. I… I want him to check me, but you have to be present.”

I smiled at her and asked pitifully “Can I have a bath first?”

Talia laughed and pulled me into the Inn. There were quite a few people in the large common room. The room went quiet when we came in and they watched as Talia led me towards a door on the other side of the room. We were almost to the door when someone said something too softly for me to hear but Talia’s hand tightened.

I stopped and looked around the room, “My name is Armsmaster Shadow Walker. I was wondering if any of you might join me in a sparing match later.”

A large Kittling stood up at a nearby table, “I am Armsmaster Kregis. With or without weapons?”

I shrugged, “I have been on the trail a long time. You can choose brother.”

I turned to the door and opened it for Talia and then followed her through. There was a hallway to the right and a door to the left. Talia opened the door and I sighed as I saw the large tubs. Talia laughed, “That was my reaction.”

Although I wanted to just sit and soak, I did not. Talia sat beside me while I bathed and when I was done, I slipped into my clean clothes. Talia led me down the hall and knocked on a brightly colored door. It was opened by an older Kittling in a smock. He stepped back and let us in. Once we were in the room he closed the door and crossed to a low cushion.

There was narrow high bed and several cabinets along the far wall. Talia led me to the cushions and we sat. Talia looked at me and then at the Kittling, “I am a month pregnant and ask for your services.”

The Kittling’s expression did not change but he shifted slightly as he looked from Talia to me. Finally he nodded and gestured at the bed. Talia stood, pulling me up with her and led me to the bed. I could feel her nervousness through our bond as she stopped me at the side of the bed, “Edward? You must not interfere or interrupt.”

I nodded that I understood and she removed the over tunic. She had not been wearing anything under it and stood before me waiting to see if I would do anything. I gently pushed her towards the bed and she smiled in relief. Once she was on the bed the older Kittling finally stood and crossed the room to stand on the other side of the bed. He looked at Talia, “Bond or Mating?”

Talia was tense as she looked at him, “Bond shock, he went into rut. It lasted a day and night.”

The old Kittling seemed to shudder, “And I thought it was bad for me.”

He looked at me and placed his hands on Talia’s lower stomach. Like when the mage did magic, I felt a tingling in my bones. The old Kittling looked at Talia’s face in surprise, “Youngling? Five girl kits, two male kits and one human girl.”

Talia looked at me and grinned, “Six girls for you to protect Edward.”

I smiled thinking to myself; eight, Talia was going to have eight babies. I laughed and looked at the Kittling across from me, “are they healthy?”

He hesitated and nodded before looking at Talia, “at least one will need to be sent to the mages.”

Talia looked at him and then at me. She could see I did not understand. She looked back at the doctor, “What else.”

He sighed and nodded, “I think you know.”

She nodded and slid off the bed and pulled the over tunic back on. She turned back to the doctor, “your fee?”

He smiled, “I saw the lineage youngling.”

Talia’s eyes widened slightly and then she nodded and bowed. “Thank you.”

I waited until we were back in the hall, before I stopped Talia. “Tell me.”

She stepped close hugging me, “At least one of the children will have mage powers. They will all have to be tested and those that have power will be taken away. It will not be done until they approach their tenth year.”

I looked at her, “Taken away?”

She looked up, “To be trained as a mage.”

I nodded, “I will have to think about that.”

I squeezed her, “And the other part?”

Talia laughed as she turned and pulled me down the hall. She stopped at a door that was almost at the end of the hall and pointed to the characters burned into the door. Inside, she took my dirty clothes and tossed them onto a small table, before pushing me back onto a low bed.

She slowly crawled up my body and kissed me. When she stopped, she smiled. “This is where we truly started. The first part of a bond is the pulling and attraction. The second is the touch, if the bond is light then that part is prolonged. The third and last part of a bond is the joining, you did not really get to enjoy that part. Sometimes when the male goes into bond shock and then right into rut certain things happen. It all depends on whether the female conceives. If she does the kits will sometimes be prematurely imprinted on their father.”

I looked into her grinning face, “Imprinted?”

She laughed, “They are going to follow you around like little ducks.”

I looked at her laughing face, trying to imagine eight little babies following me and started laughing. I squeezed Talia, “Okay my battle maid, but for that you have to promise not to rush their weaning.”

Talia laughed and her stomach growled. I grinned at her and rolled her off the bed, “Our children are hungry and since you have finally stopped throwing up everything, its time you ate.”

She laughed and followed me out the door. Back in the common room we sat at a small table to the side and ordered. I made sure they knew Talia was to get milk and not ale and we sat and talked about the road ahead. The large Kittling Armsmaster stopped beside our table and I looked up, “Yes, brother?”

He laughed and gestured to a chair. I nodded and he sat, “When do you wish to spar? There seems to be quite a few people who wish to watch.”

I looked at Talia and smiled, “Maybe an hour? I need to make sure my bond mate eats without throwing it up.”

He smiled as he looked at Talia appraising her, “Battle trained?”

Talia absently nodded as she accepted a plate from a young Kittling. Armsmaster Kregis continued looking at her, “no Kittling has completed battle training at your age in a long time.”

Talia glanced at him as she tasted her meal. She finally shrugged, “It has been over a year. I have one battle and several skirmishes behind me.”

His hand came down on Talia’s beside her plate. She slowly turned her head as the room went quiet. I was tense as he smiled and turned her hand over while watching me, “Peace brother.”

He looked down at Talia’s palm and then into her face. I knew what he would see three tiny scars shaped like a stool, “that is only used by the Imperial Clan.”

Talia nodded and he released her hand as if burned, “The Imperial Clan is…”

I put my hand on his arm, whispering quietly, “My bond mate is clan Osia.”

He looked at me for a moment, “Where are you headed?”

I looked at Talia as he removed his hand, “I promised to return clan armor to Talia’s… companions.”

He looked at me in surprise, “and after?”

I looked into his face, “The capital.”

He looked across the room and then back to me with his eyes narrowed, “You won her mating challenge?”

Talia choked on her food and I watched her until she was over it. When I turned to answer she beat me, “That is my concern Armsmaster.”

He laughed and leaned back, “You already answered youngling. Tell me, describe it.”

Talia glared at him and then laughed, “You must be my father reborn. It was after our bonding, (she smiled as he nodded) Edward went into bond shock and slipped into rut. He kept control until he passed out. His body continued the rut for a day and night. When he woke, he challenged. I did not know he was an Armsmaster. He moved very well, so I treated him as a serious threat. Three strikes, three strikes and it was over.”

Armsmaster Kregis laughed and laughed until tears came to his eyes. Talia looked at me, “This is your fault.”

I smiled, “I told you boasting before a challenge was bad luck.”

Talia turned back to Armsmaster Kregis, “At least you could have made it last longer.”

That only made him laugh harder until I had to grab him before he fell out of his chair. When he stopped, he would not look at Talia, “I am sorry youngling. I think you fell for one of our oldest tricks.”

Talia’s eyes narrowed, “Tricks?”

He grinned, “Would you like me to describe the fight?”

Talia looked at me as I sat back. “Describe it.”

He laughed again and turned to me, “He used twin swords, not the one over his shoulder. He led on your off side and waited for you to strike. He blocked and brought his off hand weapon down on your sword and reversed his other, probably stopping at your neck.”

Talia looked at me and bent forward over the table, “Edward? Would you like to spar with me?”

The Armsmaster burst out laughing as he stood, “I think I will let you two spar, it will be more interesting.”

I watched as he walked away and looked at Talia, “Are you sure Talia? I have not had a good match in a long time and need a strong partner. This will not hurt the babies?”

Talia snorted, “That is not who you have to worry about getting hurt.”

I smiled at her, “and if I win quickly? What will you give me?”

She looked at me with suspicion, “You have something up your sleeve.”

I looked at her as innocently as I could, “You are battle trained and seasoned, your sword against mine?”

She frowned as she watched me and then grinned, “Okay Armsmaster, an extra month after the babies are weaned.”

I smiled, “Six and you still train during that time.”

She smiled, “Two.”

I grinned, “Five and I am your trainer.”

Talia looked at me for several minutes, “Three and you teach me.”

I nodded, “Accepted.”

Talia sat back, “If I win, your body is mine until the babies are born.”

I raised my brows, “Talia? It is already yours.”

She laughed, “Oh not for mating, lover. To wash my back or rub my feet or whatever I want.”

I laughed, “Okay Talia but I would do that for you anyway.”

Talia stood and pulled me to my feet, “I will meet you in the salle.”

It was only a little while later that Talia came into the salle. There was a large crowd around the edge, including the Armsmaster. I bowed to Talia, “Stretch oh fearful Battle Maid.”

Talia grinned but did what I asked. I knew she was going to pay better attention this time and smiled. When Talia finished stretching, she moved towards me with a purpose. As she moved into a fighting stance facing me, I heard the Armsmaster start laughing.

Talia was trying to wait until I moved, but I only stood waiting for her. Finally I felt her through our bond but more importantly, I saw her body’s tell. I leaned back and spun completely around my back foot as her sword swung past me. My blade came to rest with the back edge resting on the back of her neck. Talia froze as the crowd laughed.

Chapter three

She looked at me and then sighed and stood. She handed me her sword shaking her head. I smiled and stepped closer to kiss her. “Enough playing love, I need practice.”

I handed her sword back and faced her. Talia moved into place and I struck. Our practice went from a trick to a deadly dance that quieted the crowd. Talia was very good and I only moved her around the salle with difficulty. When we finished it was because I stepped back away from her, breaking the pattern. We were both covered in sweat, I smiled and slipped my sword back in its sheath.

Talia walked forward slipping her sword over her shoulder. She spread her clawed fingers and placed them on my chest before leaning close and giving me a kiss. She turned as Armsmaster Kregis walked up to us. He smiled at me, “I won quit a bit of money on you.”

He turned to Talia and in a quiet voice, “Princess, he would have beaten your challenge even if he let you fight.”

Talia smiled at me, “I know. The way he moved me around the salle told me that. I even know he was holding back.”

The Armsmaster nodded, “He is better than I.”

He bowed and walked away. I put my arm around Talia’s waist, “We need another bath. I will even wash your back for you.”

The next morning we were up early and back on the road just after dawn. Talia’s tunic covered her armor today, she did not want to draw attention. We stopped briefly for lunch but mostly we pushed the pace. Talia said this way we would get there before the evening meal. We turned off the main road just after lunch and followed a smaller less used trail for a couple of hours.

In the late afternoon we reached a large stone arch with an intricate crest carved into the stones. Talia sat staring for a long time and finally nodded to me and fell back to ride behind me. It was another half hour before we saw the manor. When we finally rode up in front it, there were Kittlings everywhere. I saw several that looked like they should have been wearing armor but were not.

I dismounted and moved to Talia and waited for her to dismount. She walked beside me until we were almost to the large front doors where two males and an older female waited. I stepped forward slightly so that I was in front of her, “I am Armsmaster Shadow Walker and I would like to see your clan head.”

The female was older and in the middle so I knew she was the one in charge. She looked from me to Talia, “Why human?”

I heard the horses shifting and felt Talia move. I turned slightly to see several younglings walking towards the horses. I looked at Talia and tilted my head, “Talia?”

She nodded and walked back to the horses. I turned back to see the older female’s angry face. I smiled, “Sorry, the Battle mares were her companions and they tend to listen to her better than me.”

The female’s face changed as she glanced at Talia. She looked back at me and cleared her throat, “What do you wish to speak to the clan head about?”

I looked into her face, “I promised your dead that I would return his weapons and armor.”

The females face went still, “All of our clan are accounted for.”

I glanced at the two males as they shifted hands closer to weapons. I smiled at the female, “Peace Kittling, I bring Fenris Silvertip’s spirit home. He was companion and personal guard to Talia Quick Strike, Clan Osia; Princess of the Empire.”

Both males jerked and the female hissed. After a moment she looked at the male on her left and jerked her head towards to door. As he turned to enter the house she looked at me, “Wait human.”

I bowed slightly and turned. I smiled as I saw Talia kneeling next to a small Kittling who was timidly stroking Lady’s muzzle. I walked back to the pack horses and stopped at the first one in line. Carefully I removed the bundle that I had packed on top this morning. On the way back to the door, I stopped by Talia, “put her in charge and join me, my mate.”

Talia looked at me with a grin and then up at Biscuit, “Watch the younglings and do not eat to many sweets.”

Biscuit snorted and Talia smiled as she stood to follow me. When we reached the door the male was back and the female gestured for me to follow. Inside we walked down a wide hallway and stopped at a set of doors with two guards. When we entered the room, there was an elderly Kittling female sitting in a cushioned chair with a middle aged male beside her.

The male held a naked sword and the female was holding a book, reading. Talia had told me what to expect and what to do. I slowly walked across the room and knelt in front of the woman. In the silence I placed the bundle on the floor and unwrapped it. Moving the weapons to the side, I lifted the armor and gently placed it on her lap, “Lady, I bring Fenris Silvertip home.”

The female placed the book beside her and looked at me, “Fenris has been gone from these lands a long time human.”

I waited as she finally looked down at the armor and slowly lifted back one edge of the scale shirt. As the crest came into view she sighed and her head went to her chest. When she finally looked up, I saw the pain in her eyes. “Your price human?”

I shook my head slightly, “No price mother.”

Her eyes widened slightly and I watched her mouth twitch as she looked up at the male beside her. I turned my head and reached for the weapons I had placed on the floor. I grasped them by the blades and held them out to the male, “His weapons Armsmaster.”

He looked at me for a minute and then with his free hand, took them easily. “Thank you Armsmaster.”

I smiled and looked back at the female, “Lady, my bond mate requests the honor of telling Fenris’s tale.”

She looked surprised and for the first time looked at Talia standing by the door. I watched as her eyes narrowed and then suddenly widen. She looked down at me, “Bond mate? What is her name and clan?”

I looked at her for a moment and finally nodded to myself, “She is Talia Quick Strike, Clan Osia; Princess of the Empire.”

The clan Armsmaster jerked, but the female only smiled and nodded. “Tell your bond mate it would be our honor.”

I nodded and she leaned forward and placed her hand on my shoulder, “I know your true name youngling. What you have done brings honor back to it.”

I looked into her face, “My family is dead, mother. I am a shadow walker and Shadow Walker I name myself.”

She smiled as she sat back, “Sometimes youngling, the dead come back.”

She looked at Talia again and then up at her Armsmaster, “Quietly issue arms.”

She slowly stood holding the armor. She looked at the female beside Talia, “They will be joining us for dinner and the night.”

Talia and I were brought back to the horses where a young Kittling guided us around the large manor to a barn. As we were unsaddling the horses a small army of Kittling younglings descended on us. The Battle mares seemed to love the attention and it did not take long before they were settled.

Talia and I were shown to a room and left in peace. When the door closed Talia stepped close, “that is what I will miss.”

I hugged her, “Talia, with the crowd you are carrying it will not take long before it will be like that all the time.”

Talia laughed, “I tease you all the time about you raising them. Now it will be more true than ever. I will have dozens trying to father children when I next come into season.”

I squeezed her, “you forgetting something.”

She looked up at me, “Edward, because you are my mate does not mean all my children will be yours.”

I smiled, “Oh forgetful bonded, what happens when I smell you go into season?”

Her face whitened and then she laughed as she pushed me away, “Edward, rarely do male bond partners go into rut more then the first time.”

I grinned at her, “how strong is my bond? And how long was I in rut?”

Talia stopped laughing and looked at me. “You were able to control it.”

I watched her face, “That was before I had ever mated. It was before I… loved you. I do not know how well I will be able to control it the next time.”

Her eyes widened and then her face softened, “do you ask for my sword?”

I smiled and stepped closer, “You have already given me your sword. Remember the salle?”

Talia’s eyes widened almost in fear and then she bowed her head, “you are right, I…”

I reached out and touched her shoulder, “Talia, I returned your sword. We may be bonded and mated, but we are still getting to know each other. I do not like the idea of you being with another.”

Talia looked up into my face and smiled as she slowly reached up and caressed my face. “I will think about it.”

When we were called to dinner, Talia had once more placed her armor over her tunic so that her crest showed. Talia stopped at the door to the dinning hall and turned to me and slowly removed her sword belt and put it around my waist. When she had it adjusted she nodded and I gently tilted her face up to meet my eyes. “Are you sure?”

Talia sighed, “My time as a Battle Maid is over. I am the last of my clan. You are my bond mate and the only lover I will accept into my bed.”

Talia turned to the door and pushed it open. The large hall went silent as we entered, but as we neared the head table the whispering and talking began. The clan head stood and the room went silent, “Clan! Out of times past, out of fear and despair clan Osia is returned! This is Talia Quick Strike, clan Osia; Princess of the Empire, heir to the throne!”

The hall broke out into shouting and after a few moments, Talia stepped in front of me and held up her hand. It took a minute and then the room quieted; Talia looked around the room meeting eyes, “Long ago I was born, seven sibs I had and many litters that followed us. I was oldest and it was the tradition for the heir to be trained in battle. In my fifteenth year my training was complete and father sent me out to be blooded. In one major battle and many skirmishes I fought and finally my companions and I were allowed to return home.”

She looked around the room, tears in her eyes, “We shelter in a Carvanesse with others returning home. In the night a small army came seeking to slay me. With them were two dark mages. Traveling with us was Arch Mage Gildus. Through the night we fought, with magic shattering stone around us. In the end, it was my companions and I, the mages dead, Arch Mage Gildus exhausted and injured. Many times Fenris Silvertip stood at my side and fought. As my companions began to weaken, Fenris pushed me behind them and fought on, not letting me fight beside him. His last words were to tell you, his clan, that he fought well.”

Talia paused, again looking around the hall, tears running freely down her face, “I will not say that; Fenris was the best of us. He never did anything only well, his fight is one the ancestors will remember. I live because only a few lived to pass his body.”

Talia looked down, “The mage Gildus found the entrance blocked beyond his ability repair or move. He placed me in a spell and shielded me as time passed.”

Talia looked out over the hall, “a month ago, one came and freed me. He walked out of the past to protect the future. His name surrendered to time and honor. He walks in shadow and darkness. His name is Shadow Walker; he is my bonded and my mate by challenge.”

Again the room broke out in talking as Talia turned to me and held out her hand. I smiled as I took it and faced the head table. The Clan head smiled and waved to seats beside her. Talia sat beside her and talked quietly through dinner. When we retired Talia was quiet and I let her have her peace as I held her against me.

We were up early and found the Clan gathered as we entered the barn. I had planned on leaving Damina since she had been Fenris’s mount. All the horses were saddled and the packs put on. Damina and Biscuit stood at the front with the Clan Head and her Armsmaster.
When we stepped in front them, she reached up and caressed Damina’s head, “Well youngling, it seems this lady wishes to continue traveling with you.”

I looked up at Damina as she seemed to nod. I smiled and looked at the Armsmaster as he held a small wooden case. He looked at Talia and quietly opened the case to show an intricately engraved long knife, “Princess you are and bonded to an Armsmaster; mated you are and life mated by your lack of sword. Regardless of all that, you are a Battle Maid. We Clan Trebel, give you this long knife so that Fenris may continue to protect you.”

Talia’s hand shook slightly as she took the knife, “Thank you.”

Our ride out was with an escort of Kittlings running alongside all the way to the stone arch at the road. As we rode Talia finally started talking again, the old clan head had told her that her clan had been plagued by assassins and sickness until only a year ago the last had died.

It was a couple of hours after noon when we turned through the stone arch of another clan estate. The sky had clouded over and we had skipped the afternoon meal in the hope of beating the rain. When we crested the slight rise before the large stone manor, we saw the entire clan waiting for us. I glanced at Talia who only smiled, “She must have sent runners.”

When we stopped in front of them, there was only silence. I dismounted and walked back to the pack horses for the bundle of weapons and armor I needed. When I returned to Talia she fell in behind me. That was going to take getting used to; she said that as her life mate I had to precede her.

As we approached the arrayed clan, an old female Kittling stepped forward with a younger male beside her. I bowed slightly, “You are the Clan Head?”

She nodded, I could see the tiny bit of anger she held in check. I knelt at her feet, and unwrapped the bundle. Like before, I set the weapons to the side and picked the armor back up and held it out to her, “Lady, I return Halleria Whitehand.”

She gently took the armor and turned an edge back to uncover the crest. She sighed and her head went to her chest briefly. Quietly she turned and another female took the armor from her. She turned back to me with tight lips, “Your price?”

I shook my head, “None mother. My promise is complete.”

She looked at me for a long time and finally nodded. I turned and picked up the weapons in one hand and lifted them to the younger Kittling, “His Weapons Armsmaster.”

He reached out and took them, but seemed to hesitate before bring them back. “Thank you human.”

I nodded and looked back at the Clan Head, “Mother, may my bond mate give his tale?”

She looked over my head at Talia, “Give your name youngling.”

I could feel Talia shift, “Talia, once called Quick Strike, Clan Osia; princess and heir to the Empire.”

I stood without waiting and turned to Talia. “Once called? What do you do Talia?”

She smiled slightly, “This is not the time bond mate.”

I looked into her eyes, “You come before all else.”

She looked away, “My sword was the source of my name.”

I looked at her until she looked back at me. I sighed, “Love, names are given and changed as we grow, not just because we choose to walk beside another.”

I sighed again and smiled, “I know you are too stubborn to change, so I will give you a name. Out of the past you came, to step into my heart; for me you are Talia Time Walker.”

I heard a throat clear and turned to see several Kittlings with their mouths covered. The clan head had a smile on her face, “We will hear his tale Shadow Walker.”

Talia stepped forward and again she told of her past and of their lost clan sib. When she was done there was quiet and the Clan Head smiled, “Will you stay the night?”

Talia looked at me, but I stayed silent and she finally nodded. We finally got the horses into the barn and a small army of Kittling young descended when it began to rain. Not a soft rain, but a hard freezing rain. Talia stood beside Biscuit, staring out the door and into the rain. I heard her soft whisper, “This is how it began.”

I walked up behind her and gently pulled her back against me. “Do you think they have someplace inside we can practice?”

Talia looked back at me, “I gave up my sword, Edward.”

I smiled at her, “I was not going to give it back. I was going to let you borrow it so that you could practice with me. You do not want me to get out of practice do you?”

Talia turned in my arms, “what are you up to?”

I glanced up as one of older Kittlings approached, “I thought perhaps another wager?”

Talia laughed, “oh no love, I have learned my lesson.”

I grinned, “than just practice with me.”

She smiled and we both turned to the Kittling. He bowed, “Mistress Prontus and the Armsmaster told me to inform you of a large group of armed Kittlings spotted headed this way. The Armsmaster said to tell you they wear no crest and a mage accompanies them.”

I looked at Talia and back to him, “Do we know how many?”

The Kittling nodded, “our scout said it was a large group of maybe fifty.”

I continued looking at him, “does Mistress Prontus wish us to leave?”

He shook his head, “She asked that the Princess come to the great hall.”

I looked at Talia, thinking fast and unfastened her sword from around my waist. I knew she would not take her sword back, but I held it out as my other hand started undoing my sword belt. “Hold this.”

I removed my sword from over my shoulder and held it out as well. “Protect my sword and go with this Kittling. Tell the Armsmaster, I will go check them out and face them out there. Stay with Mistress Prontus and help protect her.”

I turned to the crowd of Kittlings around the horses, “Put the armor back on the Battle horses and put the others into a paddock.”

I touched Biscuit, “Biscuit, you and the ladies protect this entrance and the children.”

Talia touched my shoulder, “Edward…”

I smiled at her, “Go love, this is not the Carvanesse.”

I turned and walked out into the rain. With the cold freezing rain had come a kind of darkness I knew was not normal. I paused and let my senses loose before slipping into the shadows of the storm.

I found the first group fifteen minutes later. They had the mage to one side and were getting ready for what looked like a charge to the front entrance of the manor. I came into the group from the rear and slid from the shadows only an arm’s reach from the mage. When he began a spell, I felt the tingle and stepped closer, my long knife came out and circled his neck as I moved past.

The mage’s body lit up and then burst into a tower of fire. From the small of my back, a dagger dropped into my other hand as my long knife slid into a Kittling’s throat and I tore it out. The dagger took his partner below his ear as I continued past. The Kittlings knew something was wrong and turned.

I parried a sword and my dagger swept in low, cutting deep into her upper thigh. As I continued past her, her thigh shot a stream of blood from her severed artery. I took the next with a thrust up under his chin, knocking him into another. As I slipped passed the fallen Kittling she died as my dagger silently cut her throat.

There was a small gap before the next group of Kittlings and I slipped into shadow as I moved towards them. It was almost as if they did not know anything was wrong. There was one dressed better than the others with shinny armor showing me the way.

The first two of this group died silently with their throats cut as I slid out of shadow and past them. I took the next through the back of his neck and then it was the Kittling with the shinny armor. He turned as I closed and jerked his sword up in time to stop my long knife, but not the dagger as it ripped into his groin.

As I moved past, three Kittlings appeared out of the rain. The first I killed with a simple slash across her throat, before pushing her into one of the others. I blocked a lunge from the other and cut his wrist causing the sword to drop. As I moved past, heading towards the one trying to get out from under her fallen comrade, my dagger flashed forward and back, taking the Kittling with the cut wrist through his eye. A downward kick into the fallen Kittlings throat took her out.

I paused to listen to the shadows and heard more movement coming from the manor heading this way. As I moved into the next group of Kittlings the Armsmaster for Clan Prontus drifted out of the semi darkness to join me.

The first of the next group turned towards me and died as the Armsmaster took her through the throat with a sword thrust. I blocked her partner’s lunge at the Armsmaster and followed with downward stab through his neck before ripping the blade free. After that we moved as a silent team as we fought through the group.

We stopped after the last one fell and listened and the Armsmaster looked at me, “We need to check the barn.”

I nodded and together we slipped into shadow and a few minutes later stepped out of the rain and into the entrance of the barn. There were a half dozen bodies on the floor and two dozen Battle horses shifted as we appeared. I glanced around to see all the children up in the rafters.

Biscuit stepped closer and I glanced back at the Armsmaster, “You sent some of your people out to meet them?”

He nodded, “My best as soon as we saw the bloom from the mage.”

I turned to the door as the rain suddenly began to stop. Four Kittlings stepped through the door, I stopped moving as I realized they were Clan Prontus. They were grinning at the Armsmaster, “South side clear.”

He nodded, “Stay here.”

He gestured to me and I followed as he moved back out into the wet ground. We slowly circled the manor. He met a second group of his people on the west side, one was limping and another held her arm close to her chest. He sent them back to the manor and we moved on, the group on the north side were a cheerful group and caused him to shake is head before sending them in. We checked the front and found the four he had sent out sitting on a low stone wall.

When we came in the front doors, there was a chest high barrier across the hall with several Kittlings holding bows on the other side. The Armsmaster gestured and they lowered their bows and the barrier was pulled back into one of the walls. As we passed them, he told them it was clear.

I followed him down the hall and past four Kittlings at the door into their great hall. Inside were probably fifty Kittlings some in armor, but all were armed. Talia sat at a table with Mistress Prontus drinking a cup of tea. Everyone seemed to relax when we came into the room.

Talia looked up and her look of worry turned to a smile. As we approached she stood and walked into my arms. I held her a moment and then gently pushed her back, “I am soaked, Biscuit would be upset if I got you sick.”

She smiled and stepped away. She turned to the table and picked up the two swords and quietly handed them to me. I smiled as I took them, “Thank you.”

I looked at Mistress Prontus, “I apologize for bringing this trouble to your house and clan.”

She smiled and shrugged, “Clan Prontus has always stood behind the Imperial family.”

I nodded and looked at Talia, “Time to change our travel plans. If the Mistress will excuse our abrupt leave taking, we will head out and travel through the night. We should reach Clan Alterir first thing in the morning.”

Mistress Prontus shifted and looked at her Armsmaster, “Do we have anyone trained to go with them?”

He nodded, “Solis and Betrice.”

Mistress Prontus grinned at him, “You have been trying to push them out of the nest for months.”

He smiled and looked at me, “They are both Battle trained but have refused the regent counsel’s call for border guards.”

I looked at Talia and she returned my look before nodding slightly. I nodded to the Armsmaster and turned to Mistress Prontus, “We thank you.”

I held my hand out to Talia and she started leading me towards a side door. Back in the barn, we found the Battle horses being tended to. I checked the ladies while Talia checked Biscuit and had the younglings saddle the pack horses. Two female Kittlings in their early twenties came into the barn laughing and calling to two of the other Battle mares.

I recognized them from the group that had been on the north side of the manor. I could see they wore armor under their tunics and moved with a warrior’s grace. Talia grinned when she saw them, she looked at me, “They remind me of Halleria and myself when we first left.”

When everything was ready, they joined us as Mistress Prontus appeared. I had noticed Lady as she refused to let anyone remove her armor and her continued closeness. Mistress Prontus looked at Lady and held her hand out smiling, “They tell me you wish to continue with the Princess.”

Lady stepped close to her, nodding her head and neighed. Mistress Prontus smiled and softly caressed her neck, “Then return when you wish.”

Mistress Prontus looked at me, “When first I saw you, I was… not happy. The return of an Imperial Princess was the greatest of news, but bond mated to a human. That was not something I wanted to consider. Humans have been… not the best of friends to the Kittling Empire. But, now that I have seen your gentleness and the love you show to Talia, it is something I can not fight. My Armsmaster has told me of your skill and while Clan Prontus does not bow to humans, we will stand behind you.”

I bowed and turned to Talia and the two Battle maids, “We need a quiet back way out.”

The two Battle maids grinned at one another and one of them led the way.

Chapter four

They led us into one of the fields and not long after along a row of hedges. It was just getting dark when she led us out of the fields and onto a small back road. The second battle maid rode up beside Talia, “I am Betrice Dark Brow. We have been waiting for something besides those dead sticks in the regent counsel.”

Talia looked at her, “Dead sticks?”

Betrice grinned, “All they want to do is patrol the borders while humans raid and kill again and again.”

Talia looked back at me and I shrugged, “I have never been this close to the Empire.”

I looked at Betrice, “What kingdom is responsible for the raids?”

She frowned, “No one has ever lived to give a report that will tell us.”

We rode on and they talked as I thought about what she had said. We stopped a couple of hours later to eat and check the horses. I looked at Betrice, “What is the size of the raiding parties and where do the tracks led?”

She frowned, “There has never been tracks. The Army thinks it must be a force of over two hundred.”

I shook my head, “A force that large would leave some tracks.”

The other battle maid Solis nodded, “You would think so but they do not.”

When we started off again Betrice led the way. Not once did we see anyone and just after midnight we stopped to rest the horses. Talia was sore and Biscuit touched my shoulder after she dismounted and shook his head.

I told Solis and Betrice we would rest for a couple of hours and moved all the horses onto the grass behind a tall hedge row. I came back to Talia and sat beside her and pulled her head down onto my lap, “Rest, bond mate. I will keep watch.”

She looked up at me and sighed, “You are going to make me soft.”

I stroked her hair, “As you get closer to giving birth you will get tired a lot faster.”

She smiled up at me and closed her eyes. I listened to Solis and Betrice murmur to one another a few feet away. A couple of hours later, I woke Talia and Betrice; Solis had moved to the other end of the line of horses. When I reached her, she touched my arm and whispered, “Someone comes.”

I looked at the road and waited. I did not have to wait long, a line of battle horses rode out of the darkness. In the lead was Armsmaster Kregis, I touched Solis and motioned for her to stay. I stood and walked through the tall hedge, “Brother.”

The battle horses swept into a crescent facing me. It was a moment before the tall Armsmaster slid out of the saddle and moved forward, “Well met brother. I am glad to see you.”

He held out his hand and I hesitated only a moment before taking it. “Somehow, I do not think this is a chance meeting.”

He nodded and turned to those still on their horses and made a gesture. They each slipped off and moved forward. He turned back to me, “There is a whisper going around of a reward for the death of the Princess. We stopped at Clan Prontus and they sent us on. We are Clan Stelis and stand behind the Imperial family.”

I looked at him and each of the warriors before finally nodding. “Follow me.”

I turned and walked back through the hedge. I stopped by Solis; she had a large grin on her face. “If it isn’t Armsmaster Kregis and here we thought we would be out of your reach.”

He laughed, “Solis. Do not tell me, Berice is around somewhere haunting the Princess.”

Solis nodded towards the front of the column. I glanced between them and then looked at Solis, “After we talk to Talia, we will be leaving.”

She nodded and fell in behind as we moved forward. Talia was waiting with her long knife drawn, Betrice was out of sight. When she saw the Armsmaster she slipped her knife back into its sheath. When they were three steps from Talia they stopped and Armsmaster Kregis knelt with the others following.

He cleared his throat, “Princess, Clan Stelis sends its regards and offers you my services and those of my clan.”

Talia walked forward quietly until she stood in front of the Armsmaster. “Your terms?”

He grinned, “Mistress Stelis, said to tell you to keep me out of her hair.”

Talia waited and he sighed, “The Mistress said if you were true Clan Osia you would not fall for that. We stand behind you, the Mistress said to tell you. If your clan falls we all fall, she will not let that happen. We are yours, sword and armor.”

Talia looked at me, “Life mate? My I use your sword.”

I slipped it over my shoulder and reversed it. Talia took it and put it point down in front of the Armsmaster. Slowly looking into her eyes he reached out to grip the blade, “For the Empire.”

Talia nodded and he released the sword, she moved to the next Kittling. One after the other they repeated the actions of the Armsmaster. When Talia returned to me, she quietly wiped the blade with her fingers and licked the blood. Somehow it did not surprise me.

The Armsmaster came to his feet and turned the Kittlings behind him. He pointed to two and made a gesture I knew. They left at a run back towards their horses. I knew they would be moving forward as scouts. Betrice stepped out of the shadows of the hedge, “Welcome Armsmaster.”

He looked at her and grinned, “Hey trouble maker.”

She grinned back and moved forwards to quickly grasp his shoulder before moving past. The Armsmaster looked at me, “You are headed for Clan Alterir?”

I nodded and he looked at the four Kittlings with him, “Two of you take drag.”

He looked at Solis and Betrice, “You are leading?”

They nodded and he looked at the last two Kittlings, “take the flanks.”

He looked at me, “I will meet you on the road.”

I looked at Talia as he walked off, “You trust them?”

She smiled as she moved towards Biscuit, “Yes.”

I nodded and checked each of the Battle mares, before Little Witch moved up for me to mount. We moved back onto the road, Armsmaster Kregis moved to Talia’s other side as we rode down the road. Dawn was just lighting the sky when we rode through the arches onto Clan Alterir’s lands.

We rounded a wooded area and the two Kittlings that were scouting ahead were waiting. We could see the Clan Alterir’s large manor; several armored Kittlings were walking around the front of the manor. When they saw us, one ran into the front of the manor and a loud ringing followed. We sat at the edge of the woods waiting as Kittlings poured out of the manor.

When I saw several older Kittlings come out and look towards us, I nodded to Armsmaster Kregis and he rode forward. I watched as he rode up to the entrance and spoke quietly, he turned towards us and waved. I moved forward with Talia beside me. As we got closer she started to fall back. I glanced at her, we had spoken about this, so I sighed and let her move into my shadow.

I dismounted before the Kittlings and walked back to the pack horses. I untied the bundle I was looking for and carried it back to Talia. When she nodded, I walked towards the older Kittlings by the entrance into the manor. Even as I walked towards them, more Kittlings came out, mostly younger.

As we got closer I saw the look of anger but this time it was not directed at me. I noticed the older Kittling’s angry stare at Talia. There was another female next to her holding a naked sword. I knelt in front of the older Kittling, “You are the Clan Head?”

She glanced from Talia to me and snarled, “Get on with it human.”

I looked at her a moment, before placing the bundle on the ground and unwrapping it. I moved the weapons to the side. I picked the armor up and held it out, “Mistress, I return Jessip Wisetongue to his clan.”

She grabbed the armor, not even looking at the crest, “Clan Alterir has wasted enough on the imperial family!”

I was on my feet in an instant. I reached out and took the armor from her. I stared into her face, “Jessip, was my bond mate’s friend and companion. He stood beside her in battle and peace. He does not deserve this dishonor. I do not know what issue you have but this is not the time or place. Jessip stood before an army with his companions to protect clan Osia. He gave his last breath so that a companion he loved could live.”

She glared at me, the female Armsmaster shifted but I ignored her. “If Clan Alterir, can show no honor for their fallen than I will return his honor to Clan Osia and my own son will stand for him.”

The Clan Head jerked and looked away. I turned to Talia, “Bond mate, you are all that is left of your clan. Will you accept Jessip Wisetongue and give his spirit rest?”

Talia had been glaring at the older kittling and nodded, “Yes. Twice he challenged for the right to mate and twice he forfeit. If he had challenged again he would have won.”

Talia looked at me, “It will give me great honor to give our son the honor to stand after him.”

I turned and knelt; retrieving his weapons and then I stood and turned back to Talia. “Time to go, we will not stay.”

Mistress Alterir stepped forward, “Wait!”

I turned to face her and saw her look of despair, “Why?”

She knelt before Talia, “Highness, forgive me. For generations we have served your family. Year after year our young and most promising have suffered and died. Now we are but a shadow of a clan.”

Talia looked at her, “Clan leader, you have shown dishonor to your own dead. Honor does not only wear armor and carry a sword. Perhaps we honor those that do more than we should, they are the ones that stand between the helpless and those that prey on them. Jessip was very good with weapons but always said to rule the Empire I need to see the honor in all my people and not just those that carried weapons. He was a wise and brave man.”

Talia looked at me and took a breath, “Edward, take four of the young. You will train them to walk the warrior’s path.”

She looked at the shocked face of the Clan head, “Mistress, Clan Alterir is no more. In its place, stands the beginning of Clan Jessip. You will train your young, but until we Clan Osia give you leave, this clan will only raise battle steeds for the use of the Empire. Your young will not leave to serve the empire, until we give you our permission.”

All of the clan were on their knees as she spoke. The Kittling that was clan head bowed her head, “Highness, who will stand in my stead?”

Talia looked at her for a long time. “None, you will remain. I do this to give you the chance to win your honor back. Do not disappoint me.”

The Clan head bowed and stood to move back to the front of her clan. Talia gestured to me and I sighed before moving forward to the clan Armsmaster, “Sister, will you follow so that those chosen may be remembered?”

She nodded and stood to follow after me as I walked through the gathered clan. I stopped before a Kittling with a flash of red on her shoulders. She looked about eight or nine years old, “Youngling? My life mate wants me to choose those of your clan to train. I am not my mate, each I choose to teach must decide if they will honor their clan sib by accepting this training and this way of life.”

The young Kittling looked up at me and then at a female that held herself proudly. Her mother nodded slightly and the youngling looked at me, “will I get to come home?”

I smiled, “Yes, you will be free to return. When you do, you will carry my crest and that of my bonded.”

She looked at her mother and back at me, “okay.”

I smiled, “Go stand with my bonded.”

She smiled as she stood and walked to Talia. The next was another youngling of ten and then another that was nine. The last was a young male Kittling of eight; he was the only child in his litter. His father knelt next to him and was very tense. As he walked back towards Talia, I waited.

When he was out of hearing, I looked at his father, “Kittling, you wear not the trappings of a warrior. I see the work stains and bearings of one used to hard labor. Do you know horses?”

He looked up at me and nodded. I looked toward Talia and back to him, “Do you have a mate or other young to care for?”

He shook his head, “They died of sickness.”

I nodded towards his son, “You wish your son to stay with you.”

He looked at me for a long time before nodding. I smiled, “Tell me Kittling, if I offered you a job caring for my friends and the other horses, would you accept?”

He nodded and I grinned, “Than consider it done. I wi’ll have to find you a horse though.”

I jerked my head towards his son and he stood to walk after him. The Armsmaster touched my shoulder, “Thank you, he is my sib.”

I smiled and turned to walk back to Talia. I was still a few feet away when I saw her face change to one of surprise. I jumped forward and caught her as she swayed. “Talia? What is it?”

I took the armor out of her hands and handed it and the weapons to Solis. I looked at the clan head, “Do you have a doctor?”

She shook her head, “No.”

I looked into Talia’s eyes and saw that she was not really focusing. I did not really want to stay but if something was wrong with Talia I did not see a choice. I did not even consider a room inside their manor. I could almost feel something like the tingle of a spell.

I looked at the Clan head, “I would like to use your barn for the day or maybe longer.”

She looked from me to Talia, “I will have a room made up.”

I shook my head, “No, the barn. I need someplace open.”

She gestured to the side of the manor, “I will send helpers, just tell them what you need.”

I looked at Kregis, “Get everything in the barn, two guards on, one out on scout.”

I picked Talia up and carried her around the side of the manor with Biscuit shadowing me. I looked up at his head, “I do not know what it is but we will take care of her.”

Inside the barn, I had Betrice help and we lifted her up into the loft. That was when she briefly came out of whatever was happening to her and ask for food. She ate as if she were starving and then fell asleep. She woke an hour later, again asking for food acting the same way as before. She had a slight fever but nothing bad. That set the pattern, every hour she would wake crying for food and when she stopped eating she would fall back asleep.

The next day it was the same thing but I noticed she did not go to the bathroom. Her abdomen started to become distend and I started to worry. From what I could feel, this was not because of her stomach. That evening I sent Kregis out, we had been here long enough to become a target and I wanted information from the nearest inns.

Talia was only awake long enough to eat and was not really aware of what was happening around her. The next morning her abdomen was even bigger. When I felt it I got a shock, I felt our babies move! I looked at Solis who was sitting on the other side of Talia, “Should the babies be moving yet?”

Solis looked at Talia and shook her head. I frowned and thought about the Carvanesse. Whatever it was that was happening; was speeding up time for Talia. I looked back at Solis, “Care for her and make sure no one touches me.”

I moved into a sitting position and tried to picture Mage Gildus as he had been in the Carvanesse. The picture kept slipping away; I tried over and over, until finally I built the picture a piece at a time. When I finally had it, it was like something had snapped into place.

The Mage Gildus again sat before me, this time with his eyes wide open, “Well youngling you are persistent.”

I nodded to the image, “Something is wrong with Talia. Her pregnancy has gone from just over a month to maybe five or six. All she does is eat and sleep, her body temperature is high as well. Could something from the spell you used to make time pass her be affecting her?”

He looked thoughtful and then shook his head, “Give me a minute.”

His image faded suddenly and after a few moments it was back, “Listen to me youngling. I can do nothing from here but another will come to help. It should take another day, make sure she is fed as much as she can eat.”

He looked at me for a moment and then gestured. I opened my eyes to see that it was already evening. I looked at Solis, “Have you been here all day?”

She nodded and I gestured for her to leave, “Send Betrice.”

It was another long night, broken only by Talia’s waking for food. Her tummy was larger and I was seriously worried about the babies. It was late morning when Kregis returned and he did not have good news. Someone knew we were here and was hiring Kittlings for something.

It was early afternoon and we were talking about what we could do, when an ancient Kittling walked through the door of the barn. He walked with a staff and never even paused as he continued walking towards me. “Youngling, a brother asked me to come help you. He said something about a possible time slip?”

I looked at him and stood quickly, “Mage Gildus sent you?”

When he nodded, I turned to the ladder and led the way up to Talia. Almost from the moment they were together, I saw something familiar about him. He knelt and I felt the tingle of a spell as he touched her. He sat back and looked at me, “Did she touch anything from the Carvanesse that was not in the room with her?”

I thought for only a second and nodded, “Her companion’s armor.”

He nodded and seemed to relax as he turned back to Talia. I felt another tingle that spiked sharply and he sat back. He looked at me, “She will be fine. It will not be long before the babies come though, maybe an hour or two.”

I looked at him in surprise, “Are they alright?”

He nodded, “They seem fine, perhaps a little small.”

He looked down at Talia and smiled as he sat back, “Gildus should have told me she was my clan though.”

I started as did Betrice, “I thought all of clan Osia was dead.”

He looked up from Talia, “Since I am a mage and way beyond the age to produce young that would have been correct.”

I looked at Betrice as Kregis came up the ladder, “Go see the clan head, tell her we will need hot water and warm wrappings for the kits.”

I looked at Kregis, “What now?”

His face was grim, “They come. The numbers are around a hundred with two human mages.”

I stopped Betrice, “Warn the clan and then come back. I want you and Solis in the barn guarding Talia.”

I walked to the edge and called down to my four Kittlings, “Younglings? Put the armor on the Battle horses, grab those weapons I showed you and come up here.”

I looked at Kregis, “Bring the others in, tell them what is happening. Three to a side, they can move freely to engage outside the manor. You and I will go after the mages. The Clan Jessip can guard the one remaining side.”

He nodded and was gone. I turned to the mage with Talia, “We are about to be attacked, you might want to leave.”

He smiled, “I do not think so. I have lived a long time. I will stay with my clan.”

I looked at him and walked to Talia. I knelt beside her and gently shook her, “Talia.”

She opened sleepy eyes and I smiled to see the clarity in them, “My Battle maid, the enemy come.”

She started to move and stopped in surprise as she felt her tummy. “What?”

I smiled, “You cheated. The babies are coming soon, save your strength. Tell the younglings what to do. I will return as soon as I can.”

She looked at the mage as I stood. I grinned, “I almost forgot. Keep your clan mate company.”

I quickly moved to the ladder and slid down. I walked to Biscuit as two younglings were putting his armor on. The father of the young Kittling was going from horse to horse, helping and tightening everything, “Biscuit, Talia is awake. She will have the babies soon and enemies come. I can not move her, you and the others protect the barn. Solis and Betrice will be in here as well.”

He snorted and I turned away as Kregis returned. With him was the Clan Jessip Armsmaster, “Sister Eli asked to come with us.”

I nodded as I removed my sword and walked to the packs, “What direction are the mages coming from?”

“South. The main body is with them. Two smaller groups are flanking.”

I set my sword on a pack and quickly went through another and brought out the twin short swords. They were forged with silver etchings that ran down the blades. They had been made for one thing, facing mages. I hesitated and then removed Talia’s sword from my waist. I slipped a short sword over each shoulder and turned, “We take it to them.”

As they nodded, I led the way to the barn door and out into the afternoon sunlight. As we walked, they moved to flank me on each side. We moved into a field and walked along a tall hedge that bordered the field. It was a little while later that we saw movement and slipped into the hedge and waited.

As the two scouts walked passed, we stepped out. Eli grabbed the one trailing and my thrown dagger took the other. We quietly pulled the bodies into the hedge and moved down further. A few minutes later the main body started to pass and not long after that the mages came into sight. I did not hesitate and stepped out, one sword sliding into one of the mages.

Kregis and Eli both followed as confusion and panic swept the group. As the second mage cast a spell at me. I crossed the twin swords catching the spell on them, causing lightening to cascade up and down the blades, until I swept them apart; pointing to two Kittlings charging us.

Both were struck when the spell left the blades and stood screaming as smoke came pouring from their eyes. I started for the mage, one of my swords flashing out to cut the throat of a rushing Kittling.

When I brought it back, I crossed the blades again, just in time to catch another spell. I brought the swords apart in a casting motion back towards the mage and he grabbed a Kittling beside him, pulling him in front of the returning spell. I blocked a sword and took its bearer’s arm as I passed.

The mage had started another spell when I reached him and was trying to walk backwards. As he brought his hand up to gesture towards me and I took it off at the wrist. The spell exploded around him, his body engulfed in flame and flashes of lightening. My other sword came up as I turned away and buried itself in his eye.

I made my way towards the two Armsmaster’s. It did not take long to reach them. I only had to stop twice for Kittlings that had somehow made it around their engagement. We moved as only Armsmaster’s can, one of us would attack another block and the third would kill. It was working extremely well and we had managed to almost completely wipe out this group when they broke and ran.

I was facing two Kittlings when I felt Talia’s pain. It almost drove me to my knees as I blocked the two swords again and again. When the pain passed, I moved, blocking one and lunging into the other before spinning away and slicing down to block again. Suddenly Eli was there, her sword extended through the Kittling’s armored chest. I looked back towards the manor, “Kregis? I have to go. Talia is giving birth and our link is distracting me with her pain.”

He nodded as he faced the only four Kittlings that had not run. Eli killed one as she joined him, “Go brother.”

I turned and started running towards the barn and Talia. I was almost there when the pain hit me again and I stumbled into the barn. Betrice and half the Battle horses were around me in moments, a dozen Kittling raider bodies littered the floor. Betrice grabbed me and pulled my face up to hers.

I gasped through the pain, “Talia?”

Betrice’s look of worry turned to one of understanding. She turned me and gave me a push. I had trouble at the ladder and a youngling had to help me onto the loft. I staggered across the hay filled loft to Talia’s side and fell to my knees. The old mage was on her other side and an elder Kittling female was between her legs.

The pain eased and I panted as I reached out and took Talia’s hand, “Talia.”

She opened her eyes and gave me a small smile, “Edward.”

I looked at the Kittling between Talia’s legs as she gently lifted a young kit and placed her on her stomach. The old mage silently reached out and tied off the cord before cutting it and moving the kit to a covered blanket beside him. When he laid my baby down I saw another beside her.

When I looked back at Talia I saw how exhausted she was and sat. I closed my eyes and thought of the black nothingness and pushed my strength through the bond I felt as Talia once more screamed in pain. I was like that for almost an hour as again and again Talia gave birth.

Finally it was over and I open weary eyes to look at Talia. Right away I almost panicked, her eyes were closed and her groin was covered in blood. The Kittling between her legs was shaking her head. She looked at me, “She bleeds inside. She does not have long.”

I looked at Talia and then the mage, “Can you do anything?”

He shook his head slightly. I sat with my mind racing before jumping up and running to the edge of the loft and dropping off. I ran to my packs and tore into one, my mind screaming. I pulled a slim wrapped package out and ran for the ladder. Back in the loft, I dropped down next to Talia.

I unwrapped the package to reveal a straight slim short sword. I threw the wrapping behind me and bent over Talia as I pulled the sword from its sheath. I gently shook her until she opened her eyes and looked at me. “Love, I know you would refuse your sword but I want you to take this.”

I took her hands and placed them around the naked blade. I looked back into her straining face, “Look at the Crest below the hilt and fight.”

I closed my eyes, blanking all my thoughts. When I was calm, I thought of Talia sitting across from me, focusing hard on making that image. When she appeared, she held the short sword in one hand and her eyes were open. I thought of the healing bowl like my father had taught me and lifted it between us.

I put all of my concentration on the bowl and watched as what looked like clear water poured from out of thin air filling the bowl. I held it out to Talia, “Drink it all.”

She reached out and took the bowl, looked at me a moment and then slowly drank. I watched as she began to glow and faded from my sight. I shook myself and opened my eyes to see Talia lying before me glowing softly, her eyes closed. The old mage was looking at me curiously but I ignored him as Talia shifted and squeezed my hand.

Her stomach began to shrink and it looked like she had never had the babies. Talia opened her eyes and turned her head to look at me, “Edward?”

I smiled and as she turned to look the other way the blackness I expected claimed me. Talia turned back at the sound of my body hitting the loft floor.

Chapter five

I woke on my side to a gentle glow. I was laying on a blanket with another over me. I could feel several wiggling bodies next to my bare chest and lifted the blanket to see my children snuggling up against me for warmth. When I looked up Talia was sitting there smiling at me.

She had the short sword across her lap and whispered quietly, “Welcome back.”

I smiled, “That is what I was going to say to you. How long have I been out?”

She looked at the door into the barn, “The rest of yesterday and all night.”

I glanced past her to two sleeping Kittling females. Talia looked at them and grinned, “The children’s wet nurses. It seems that when you… healed me it dried up any milk in my breasts.”

I looked back at Talia, “It worked then, you are okay?”

Talia nodded and looked down at the sword in her lap. “We need to talk about this sword.”

I sighed and looked away from her, “You recognized the crest.”

Talia nodded, “It is the family crest of the High King.”

I put my head down, “That Empire is long gone and with it the High King.”

There was silence for a moment before Talia spoke again, “That was not what I wanted to talk about.”

I looked at her as she sat absently fingering the sword. She sighed and shook her head, “Edward, when you gave this to me it was for your own reasons. Unfortunately, Kittling custom is clear. By giving me your sword you have said that on my next season I must find another to… father my litter.”

I almost jerked up at that, the only thing that kept me, was our children. “No! That is not why I gave that to you.”

Talia looked at me, “I know that Edward but you gave it to me.”

I looked into her eyes, “Talia do not do this.”

Talia looked away as one of the Kittlings next to us woke. I stirred and gently slid out from under the blanket. I gathered my clothes and weapons before leaving. I found one of Talia’s Kittling liegemen below and told him to pass the word we would leave at dawn.

Talia and I were not speaking. I had brought our children down from the loft and let Biscuit see them. Clan Jessip was in a very good mood, the fight the day before had resulted in no loss of life or even any damage. Two of Talia’s liegemen had been injured but would recover within a short time. Clan Jessip had given Talia a small carriage as well as several horses.

I had stood quietly before the Battle mares and asked if they would carry the four younglings I would train. Damina, Lizzie, Sofia and Little Witch had all stepped forward. As we rode away the two Kittling wet nurses and my trainee’s father went with us. It seemed that our kits were constantly being fed as we rode.

Clan Huntis was three days away so that night we stopped away from any dwelling and made camp. That night for the first time since we had been together, I did not sleep with Talia. It was a long uncomfortable night, filled with dark thoughts and little sleep.

In the morning Biscuit gently push against my shoulder as I was settling Lady’s armor. I looked at him and shook my head, “I do not know if I can accept what she is thinking about doing.”

He snorted and quietly moved away, waiting for Talia to come put his armor on. The day was a repeat of the day before, all the Kittlings knew something was wrong between Talia and myself and left us alone. I was thinking hard the whole time we rode, about Talia and myself and what I should do. We entered a forest in the early afternoon. That evening we stopped beside a small stream.

As we set up camp, I only dropped my sleeping roll at the edge of camp before walking to the packs. I went through them until I found what I had been looking for; two necklaces with thin solid gold chains. I walked across the camp to Talia, “Walk with me.”

The camp went silent as she followed me out of camp and past a small clump of brush. I stopped and turned to face her. When she stopped, I knelt at her feet and removed her boots. I broke one of the soft links and quietly reached out to her ankle and wrapped it around her. I broke the longer piece off and squeezed the links of the shorter piece together around her ankle.

I repeated it for the other ankle and then stood and reached for her hand. I wrapped the piece of chain around her wrist and then did the same thing for her other one. With the second necklace, I broke the link at the lock and put it around her neck. With this chain I took the black stone that had been its center piece and placed it in the hollow of her throat before breaking the links again and squeezing the soft gold links together forming a collar.

I took a breath and finally looked into Talia’s eyes, “Ever since we met and bonded I have done as you asked. I have given up my life to follow you and be with you. I have let you guide me and direct what we did with your Kittling customs. Talia, you will be empress and I will not stand in the way. I will have nothing to do with ruling your Empire. The one thing I want is you. I can not accept what you think you have to do. These chains are soft, easily broken. They are a symbol only, that you belong to me, my life mate. If you can not accept this… break the chains.”

I did not wait for Talia to speak. I turned away and walked back to camp. I picked up my dropped sleeping roll and walked into the gathering darkness, following the stream. After a couple of hundred yards I stopped and unrolled my sleeping pad setting the blanket to the side. As I lay down, I looked at the sky over me and hoped.

Talia came out of the darkness a few minutes later to stand at my feet. Finally after a moment she lay beside me and put her head on my chest. “Edward, you have made things very difficult.”

I held her and waited. When she lifted her head, it was to look into my eyes, “You will leave if I break the chains.”

I only nodded and she sighed, “Edward, our bond would kill you if you left.”

I did not say anything and she put her head back on my chest, “You knew that.”

Finally she moved until she was sitting beside me, “Edward, you put me in chains.”

I smiled, “I also gave you my conditions.”

She smiled, “and when my people start looking at you to answer their problems?”

I took her hand, “My family’s time for ruling is over. I will bed you and take you to a salle to put bruises on your cute butt. I will raise our children and train those you ask me to train. The one thing I will not do is rule your Empire.”

She looked at me for a long time, biting her lip as she thought, finally she nodded. “Very well life mate.”

I hesitated and squeezed her hand, “Could you stop walking behind me and just walk beside me?”

She grinned, “Actually that would be a good thing.”

She laid back down beside me and put her head on my chest. A few minutes later she looked up with a twinkle in her eye, “Are we going to sleep here?”

It was a couple of hours later when we quietly walked into camp and went to her bed. One of the wet nurses was still up and smiled when she saw us together. After we had lain down, she gently moved our kits and placed them between us.

We woke several times in the night for the kits to be fed. I slipped out of bed before dawn and made a slow walk around the outside of the camp. As I came closer to the horses, Kregis stepped out of the shadows. “You and Talia have made up?”

I nodded and he shifted, looking back at the nearby battle horses. He looked at me, “She still carries the sword?”

I nodded and smiled softly, “She is my life mate; her body mine to share. Her kits mine to father. I have little interest in ruling an Empire. The sword was given so she could be healed.”

He looked at me for a minute and then smiled, “I think I believe you.”

He turned to walk away, but stopped for only a moment, “You pose many questions brother.”

I grinned, “I have named myself Shadow Walker for a reason.”

He nodded and walked off while I finished checking the area around camp. The camp woke and noticed right away that Talia and I had settled our disagreement. I even fashioned two carriers for our kits. Talia protested that it was not fair because I did not wear armor.

I smiled at her and turned to point at Armsmaster Kregis, “Armsmasters do not wear armor for a reason.”

I walked to our children and quietly picked my human daughter up and turned to Talia, “I have waited three days and you have not named my daughter. So… her name is Elisabeth.”

Talia looked at me and down at our daughter, “Edward we do not name our young until they open their eyes.”

I smiled as we watched my daughter wiggle and open sleeping eyes, “Talia, human babies open their eyes shortly after being born. They may not be able to focus them properly, but they are open.”

I gently put her into one of the carriers and turned to Talia and held her out. Talia looked down into her face and quietly removed her armor and rolled it up. She put my sword back over her shoulder and took the carrier and put the straps over her shoulders so that Elisabeth rested against her breasts. Talia finally looked up to see everyone watching her. She smiled, “Her eyes are a beautiful blue.”

I smiled as she turned to walk to Biscuit. I turned and bent to pick up one of my other daughters and put her struggling form into the carrier before putting it on. We exchange the babies as we rode that day. Everyone’s mood seemed to lighten with ours. It was late afternoon when we came to the Huntis clan arch. We silently gave the kits back to their wet nurses and Talia put her scale armor on.

It was fifteen minutes later that we turned a corner and the trees that had blocked our view fell away. Clan Huntis was forming to greet us as we watched. The manor was the largest I had seen so far. Talia pulled Biscuit to a stop and looked at me, “Would you like to walk with me?”

I grinned and slid out of the saddle, “Anytime love.”

I took Talia’s hand as everyone fell back behind us. I glanced back to see Kregis remove the two bundles of armor. As we walked up to the gathered clan, a middle aged female Kittling stepped forward. Talia whispered that Clan Huntis was different from other clans. The clan leader retired early and only advised after that.

I turned to Kregis and accepted the two bundles. When I turned back another female about the same age was beside the clan leader with a naked sword. I knelt with Talia standing beside me. I unwrapped both bundles; placing the weapons to the side I held one set of armor up to the clan leader, “Mistress, I am Edward Shadow Walker, and I return Jilues Darkbrow.”

She accepted the armor and turned the edge back. I watched as she sighed and nodded before turning to another older woman that stepped forward. “It is one of the lost.”

She handed the armor to her and turned back to me. I lifted the other set of armor, “Mistress, Adodia Night Stalker.”

She quietly accepted the armor and glanced at the crest before handing it back. I picked up both sets of weapons and held them out to the Kittling holding the sword, “Their weapons, sister.”

She looked at me for only a brief moment and then her sword spun around her hand and up over her shoulder. She reached down and took the weapons from me, “Thank you brother.”

I looked back to the clan leader, “Mistress, my life mate wishes to tell your clan sib’s tale.”

She looked at Talia, “Your name kittling?”

Talia smiled; she knew this was a formality for the clan. “I am Talia Time Walker, Clan Osia, Princess of the Empire.”

The clan shifted and there was a quiet murmur. The clan leader bowed, “We would be honored to hear our clan sibs tale.”

I stood and took a small step back and listened to Talia telling them about their clan sibs. When Talia was finished, the clan leader looked at me, “Will you stay the night Armsmaster?”

I smiled at her, but looked at Talia and raised an eyebrow. Talia grinned, “We would be honored Mistress Huntis.”

The clan gathering broke up quickly and as we were led to the side of the manor where the barn was, Kregis walked up beside me. He kept glancing at me and finally at Talia, “Something changed.”

I nodded, “My promise to return her companions armor is over. Now I follow where she leads.”

He looked at Talia and suddenly laughed. “You did that before.”

I grinned and took Talia’s hand, “But now I get to tell everyone to ask her.”

Talia grinned and squeezed my hand, “Clan Osia rules this Empire. My mate stands behind the throne.”

Like every time we had stayed with a clan, an army of young descended on the barn to help take care for the horses. I made sure the four younglings took care of their battle mares before carrying their things to the manor. Talia joined me as we carried our own things and let the two Kittling wet nurses carry our kits.

Dinner was organized chaos that seemed to flow around the clan leader. She kept looking from Talia to me and finally sat back. “The clans are forming in the capital. They say a human is coming to rule us…”

Talia smiled, “Edward is my life mate. I will rule.”

The clan head looked at her, “And when you next come into season?”

Talia looked into her eyes, “Adodia once told me that I was meant for one of higher station. I thought he meant the goddess… he did not and was more right than he knew.”

Mistress Huntis looked at me while I sipped water and watched my younglings. She looked back at an older woman who smiled and bowed to me as she passed. The rest of the meal was quiet and I slipped away to spend time with our kits. Talia slipped in the door shortly after me and smiled as I rocked one of the kits against my chest. She slid into our sleeping furs and picked up Elizabeth, “It is started.”

I smiled as I teased my kit, “It would have happened even if I was a Kittling. Ignore them and be yourself.”

Talia sighed, “If only it was that easy.”

I reached out to caress Talia cheek, “It is that simple. If I ignore them, they can have no hold.”

I woke to one of the wet nurses coming into the room. Talia was warm against my back as I held the kits against my chest. The wet nurse sat and leaned forward to pick up one of the kits and my reflexes kicked in. My hand shot out to grab her wrist and twist as I came to my feet, “Talia!”

I dove forward into the nurse and rolled clear as she came to a crouch with a dagger drawn, “Foolish human.”

The form of the wet nurse shifted into a hideous demon as she shuffled closer. Before I could do anything, the demon screamed and burst into flames before turning to ash. The chamber door burst open as Betrice rushed in. I smiled at Talia as she slowly stood from her couch. She held my short sword and it glowed an angry red color.

I moved forward and embraced her before kneeling to check the kits. Betrice kept wanting to know what was happening. After I finished checking the children with Talia beside me I looked at her, “A demon, sent to kill the children.”

Betrice swallowed, “But it was the wet nurse.”

I waved and almost told her what to do before looking at Talia, “We need the rest of our party checked.”

Talia nodded and looked away from Elizabeth in her arms, “Go check the others and send me Armsmaster Kregis.”

Betrice nodded and left quickly. I touched Talia’s cheek, “The sword I gave you is one of the only weapons that can hurt a demon.”

She nodded, “I… thought it might.”

She caressed Elizabeth before looking me in the face, “This might explain how my clan died.”

I sat and started thinking, trying to remember all the stories I had been told. Kregis came in but he was not alone, the Huntis Armsmaster was with him. Talia seemed to be getting angry and I cleared my throat as she started to say something. She looked at me with a frown.

I leaned forward towards Talia, “I have been thinking, remembering the stories told to me. My ancestors created the Kittlings to guard a demon prince. It was imprisoned beneath the throne room. If other demons have been loosed they will try to free the bound one and the only way to do that is to end your line and mine. There are those that can detect demons even when they take the form of another. The battle steeds are one if I remember correctly from some of the other stories I have heard.”

Talia nodded and looked at Kregis, “bring everyone to the barn. We leave for the capital.”

Kregis nodded and turned away as the Huntis Armsmaster bowed and followed him out. I touched her cheek, “Listen well my mate. I remembered something else from those same stories. If I enter your throne room it will cause the Binding Seals to open. It will bring the last Emperor and he will not acknowledge you. He will bow to the High King and offer his throne.”

Talia looked at me, “But…”

I touched her lips, “I never thought the stories were true. The Kittling clans are my direct vassals…”

Talia closed her eyes, “But you do not…”

I laughed sharply, “The time for my family to rule is past but I still have responsibilities. To you as the heir to this Empire and to the Kittlings themselves, yours is the only kingdom my family still owes a dept to. There is something else, since you have accepted me as your life mate… You are now the High Queen. Do you understand what I am trying to say?”

Talia shook her head and I sighed, “Talia, Empress or not, You already rule through their binding oaths. Every Kittling was required to give their oath kneeling on the High King’s Crest at the age of maturity.”

She looked at me, her eyes wide and it was a moment before she finally nodded, “So you will rule.”

I shook my head, “No. I will acknowledge the Emperor and name you as my wife and queen. When I do this the Demon prince may come forth to face me and you as the most dangerous threat to his imprisonment.”

Talia held up my sword and I shook my head, “The sword itself might not be enough.”

She sighed but looked determined, “Than we will fight.”

I reached out to touch her hand, “I have my father’s sword. We must fight together.”

She was looking into my face and then laughed as she stood, “It seems you get your wish after all.”

I smiled and turned to start packing. When we reached the barn everyone was already there. There were even several Kittlings from the Huntis clan waiting. They were armored and packed. They bowed to Talia as I headed to the packs and the wrapped sword buried at the bottom of one pack.

I fastened the scimitar over my shoulder and went to put Lady’s armor and saddle on. This time I left the children with the wet nurses and rode beside Talia. She glanced back once and smiled as she looked at me, “The Clan leader sent her best warriors.”

I smiled and Lady shifted closer to Biscuit. I reached out to squeeze Talia’s hand, “Time to be their ruler and not just a warrior.”

Talia nodded and looked back at Armsmaster Kregis, “Armsmaster, would you put out a scout and someone on the flanks.”

We rode in silence until the morning sun began to rise and Talia gestured to the side of the narrow road, “We can break our fast here.”

Talia called everyone together to explain what had happened and what we were going to do about it. I took the children and juggled them before settling down in the middle of the Battle steeds. Biscuit reached his neck down to smell the wiggling kits and I rubbed his neck, “We have demons after them Biscuit.”

His head lifted slightly and he looked around. The mares all shifted around until they faced out in a circle around the kits. After a light meal, Talia and Kregis talked and then we were back on the road.

This time the battle mares spaced themselves around our kits as we rode. We stopped at a small inn where a dozen more armored Kittlings waited. After the inn we were met every few kilometers by more Kittlings. That night we had an army around us as Talia sank down into our shared furs. She snuggled close and sighed, “This is going to take getting used to.”

I grinned and squeezed her, “Tomorrow we practice before we leave.”

Talia nodded and looked on the other side of my body at our Kits. She smiled and reached out to caress a sleeping Elizabeth. Talia smiled again and put her head on my shoulder. When the wet nurse came for the kits, she had to pass the battle steeds to do so. I woke early with just a hint of dawn.

I touched Talia and her eyes snapped open as any warrior’s would. I carefully moved away from the kits and stood. I dressed carefully and led Talia to an open space. Many of the Kittlings were awake as we faced each other. The clash of our weapons was loud in the morning air and drew a crowd quickly.

At first Talia was stiff but gradually she loosened up and met my attacks with more confidence. I stopped several times to give her instructions before continuing. When we stopped, Armsmaster Kregis stepped forward and looked around at all the Kittlings.

He looked at me and bowed before facing the warriors, “I have heard many of you say Shadow Walker is not worthy of the Princess. He is her life mate and her Armsmaster. His skill is beyond even my own and they will need it. When we reach the capital there may be those that do not wish to give up their power. That, we will deal with.”

He looked around carefully, “What the Princess and Shadow Walker will face is even more dangerous. They will face a demon prince in the throne room where we can not go. Their fate and the fate of our Empire rests on their battle. It is up to us to make sure they have the chance to fight that battle.”

He looked at me and then Talia before bowing to her. We rode out after breaking our fast and like the day before Kittlings were waiting to join us as we drew nearer to the capital. By the time we made camp that night Talia had almost two hundred Kittlings as her vassals.

Before we ate I cleared a space and faced Talia. She was tired and tense as I looked at her, “Attack me.”

Talia lunged and I used a dagger to swat her sword away, “Do not lunge like that with a short sword.”

Talia nodded and seemed to shake herself. She began to circle and feinted. I let another dagger slip into my other hand as I turned. “You need to stay closer to your target.”

We were drawing a crowd but Talia seemed to become more focused. Soon it became a dance of strike and parry, slash and cut. As it started getting dark I stepped back and Talia grinned. I was just turning away when Lady screamed her battle cry. Talia and I both spun towards the kits.

Standing between us and the battle steeds was a tall, wide shouldered Kittling. The hair on my arms stood up as I realized what it really was. I pulled the slim scimitar and moved towards the Kittling as it suddenly shimmered and turned to face me. It snarled, “You will die mortal!”

Talia moved beside me as the Demon moved towards us. I shifted away from Talia and she moved in the opposite direction. Several arrows sped through the night to strike the demon but it was as if they did not even hurt it. I waved other Kittlings with swords back as I closed.

The demon suddenly rushed and I shifted sideways and sliced down with my sword. The demon screamed as my sword took one clawed hand that dropped to the ground smoking. The demon did not even consider anyone else a threat which was its undoing.

I lunged towards it and it leaped back straight onto Talia’s sword. Its scream was one that shattered the night before flames burst from it as Talia pulled her sword free. Talia backed away as the demon was consumed by a flash of flame and only ashes remained.

The camp was quiet for only a moment and then voices filled the air. Talia waved towards the battle steeds and our kits. I nodded and turned towards Biscuit and Lady as Talia raised her voice, “Quiet!”

Chapter six

I moved into the battle steeds and knelt to check the kits. The two wet nurses nodded as they juggled and cooed to the kits. I took two and held them and comforted them until Talia finally joined us. It was awhile before everything settled down and Biscuit put his big head over my shoulder to snuffle Elizabeth. The baby gurgled and grabbed his head and he blew out against her making her laugh. Talia smiled and reached up to rub his big forehead.

Solis brought two plates of food a little later and sat with us while we ate. I thought about the swords we carried and the demon prince waiting. I glanced at Talia, “we need to keep the ladies and Biscuit around the children while we are in the throne room.”

She nodded as she cradled one of the kits, “I was thinking the same thing.”

We slept lightly that night. Many of the battle steeds of the other Kittlings came to make an outer ring around us. I woke to the faint hint of light and sighed at the warmth of Talia against my back. I turned carefully so I would not wake the kits and caressed her face.

I sniffed at a very faint musky scent and then looked at Talia as she opened sleeping eyes. I cupped her face, “soon you will go into season again.”

Her eyes widened slightly and she sniffed before nodding, “Maybe two days.”

I smiled, “than I will celebrate our victory.”

She laughed quietly and shook me before slipping out of bed, “come stretch.”

I checked the kits before following her. After a light meal we rode out. Kregis rode beside Talia while I carried a kit. It was not even noon when we reached the edge of the city and by then another fifty warriors had joined us.

There were two groups facing each other as we rode up. One with maybe two hundred more Kittlings knelt before Talia. The other group of a hundred looked on disdainfully. One rode forward to meet Talia, “By order of the regent counsel we are here to place you under arrest.”

Talia opened her mouth to reply angrily and I cleared my throat. She looked at me and narrowed her eyes. I waited and she finally sighed and moved closer. I whispered, “Show him the sword crest.”

She blinked and then pulled the short sword. She moved closer to the Kittling and turned the blade so he could see the crest, “Do you recognize this crest?”

The Kittling sneered before glancing at the crest. His face faltered and Talia nodded, “You swore an oath on this crest, as did every Kittling through the ages. This sword was given to me by my life mate. By your oath I call you into service.”

If Talia was surprised when the sword began glowing she did not show it. The Kittling officer jerked and then slowly knelt and bowed his head. Talia nodded and started walking forward into the massed Kittlings. I glanced at Kregis as he shuddered and then followed her.

Slowly the Kittlings all began to kneel, many before she even reached them. When she returned to me, she sheathed the sword and faced the new groups of Kittlings. “I go to the palace and the throne room. To those that know him not, my life mate is the rightful High King.”

She waited as they stirred and murmured and then she lifted an arm, “My mate does not wish to rule. We, the Kittling Empire have always sworn an oath to him. We have forgotten the reason this was so. Beneath the throne of the Empire is a bound Demon Prince.”

The Kittlings hissed and raised angry fists. Talia lifted her hand again, “It was our responsibility to guard him. Now, lesser demons have come to free it. They have almost slain the clan Osia. I and my kits are all that remain.”

Talia looked around as she stood tall, “When my mate enters the throne room, the magic seals that protect this Empire will open. When he pronounces me his mate and queen, the Demon Prince will come forth.”

The gathered crowd hissed and Talia nodded, “By my oath before that very throne, I will face it with my mate and no other. Other lesser demons may come and they are yours. Your weapons can not kill as mine or my mates. But I remember well my teaching to become a warrior. It says that if we dismember a demon it can not stay in our realm.”

The army was swept with murmurs and whispers before Talia again raised her hand, “We may also face other unenlightened Kittlings that will try to stop us.”

The army surged to their feet with a roar, “NO!”

Talia waited until they quieted and then turned to Armsmaster Kregis, “Command them my Armsmaster.”

Kregis bowed slightly and began issuing orders as Talia and I swung into the saddle. I glanced back at my four Kittling younglings, “You will stay with the kits and guard them with your lives. Stay back from the fighting and the battle steeds will assist you.”

I could see their frightened looks and smiled, “Do what they show you younglings.”

They nodded and I turned back as we started forward into the city. Kittlings watched from almost every building. At every street crossing more warriors joined us. When we finally rode into the huge paved square before the palace there were two hundred Kittlings in five clan colors waiting.

Talia glanced at me and slid out of her saddle. As she walked forward Biscuit followed at her shoulder. She stopped halfway between the two armies and waited. Kregis was no’t idle as he moved Talia’s Kittlings into position facing the army across the paving stones. The other Kittlings began shifting as they realized we more than out numbered them.

Finally five Kittlings started forward and Kregis strode towards Talia to join her. When Talia pulled her sword the other Kittling army growled. The sword glowed and then two Kittlings and a human were walking towards Talia and the group before her. One of the Kittlings was the mage that had come to save her.

Even from where I sat on my horse I saw the human mage frown as he tried a spell. My chest tingled and I smiled as he jerked back. The other two looked at him as he dropped to his knees. I slid off Lady and started walking. Talia and the small group with her stood at almost the exact center of the huge square. Beneath their feet was the huge seal every Kittling swore an oath to.

I passed Talia and stood in the center of the High King’s seal. The huge square was silent as I looked at the five Kittlings facing me and drew a tiny knife and pricked my finger. I put the knife away and turned my hand to let a single drop of blood fall. As it struck the seal there was a crystal like bell that rang once.

Every Kittling grasped their chest as they felt the invisible pull. I looked at the five, “By your oath, I stand before you at the time of need.”

I let another drop of blood fall and again the crystal bell rang. I knew all the Kittlings in the empire were feeling this, “By your oath, I command you.”

My voice was quiet but it still sang in every Kittlings ear. I let a last, third drop fall. When the crystal bell rang again every Kittling went to their knees except Talia. I roared, “By your oath, I summon the clans to battle!”

This time there was a huge roar from the palace behind the gathered army. I looked at the five bowed heads before me, “Your empress stands before you ready for battle. The enemy draws close even now and the sworn purpose of the empire is at stake. Do you stand with the enemy or with the Empire?”

They looked up with wide eyes and looked at Talia before lunging, “The Empire!”

I nodded and turned to look at Talia, “Lesser demons will be coming and right now the only one that can open the throne room doors is you.”

She smiled faintly and bowed slightly before looking at Kregis, “Prepare the Empire for battle.”

Kregis started and then spun and started yelling as the five Kittlings turned to issue commands. Talia looked at me and I bowed, “Are you ready my mate?”

She bared her teeth and growled, “On my clan’s honor.”

I nodded and turned as she started walking past me. I reached over my shoulder and pulled the scimitar. From a hidden pocket I pulled an ancient ring and put it on my left hand. The army before us split as we approached, forming a kneeling isle of Kittling warriors.

Talia paused at the huge door and then reached out to grab the silver ring around her clan’s emblem. There was the sound of bells as the doors seemed to open by themselves. Talia straightened and walked in with me beside her. Six seals flared to life; on the floor, ceiling and on each wall.

A grey haired Kittling appeared in front of the throne and knelt, “The Empire is yours to command, your majesty.”

I turned to Talia, “This is Talia Osia. Empress of the Empire, my bond mate and my queen.”

He bowed and there was a rushing sound and then a roar that echoed beyond the throne room. A huge pillar of fire exploded from the throne and the old Kittling disappeared. From the pillar of fire stepped a ten foot creature straight from my nightmares. “YOU WILL DIE NOW PUNY MORTAL!”

I slid to the left as Talia jerked and then slid smoothly to the right. The huge doors glowed an angry red and slammed close. I was not going to let the horror before me shake me, “This time you do not face a prince demon.”

It growled as it turned to face me, “You think your puny tricks will work this time?”

It lashed straight back at Talia with a taloned foot and I lunged forward. It hissed as my sword stabbed into its hand leaving a smoking gash. Before it could strike I was rolling away. Talia was to the side, its attack had missed and there was another smoking slice along the side of the demon’s foot.

The demon howled, making the whole build shake. It spun to face Talia, “I WILL TAKE YOUR MATE FIRST, MORTAL!”

Talia roll sideways as it rushed towards her. I moved after it with a feeling of dread. The demon screamed as Talia came to her feet and suddenly lunged back with her sword. It went straight through the demon’s reaching hand and then I was there. I cut across behind its knee and the demon screamed as blood poured out like molten steel.

I rolled sideways as the demon tried to slash back at me as it turned on one leg. Talia sliced across before moving back and again the demon screamed as a clawed finger dropped to the floor. From outside I could hear the roar of battle as the demon snarled and hopped after Talia. I laughed, “Stupid demon. There is only one way out of this room and she is the only key.”

The demon stopped and slowly turned to face me. It was standing on the floor seal before the throne as it growled, “Than I will rip you apart before I make your bitch scream!”

I held up my left hand, “I command the seals of might to open!”

The seal under the demon exploded in white light and the demon screamed as if it was being ripped apart. It staggered forward reaching for me blindly and I shifted and moved sideways before bringing my sword down on the wrist. The building shook as the demon stumbled back screaming, smoking acid like blood sprayed across my chest.

Its smoking hand lay on the floor and I watched as Talia leaped towards the demon’s back. I rushed forward as her sword struck the demon. It howled and tried to reach behind it as I leaped and swung my sword. The demon’s scream was cut off as my sword sliced across its throat before I was pushing away.

I dropped to the floor and rolled backwards as the demon’s one clawed hand grabbed at me. The claws ripped through my thick jacket and shirt and ripping across my chest before I was beyond its reach. The demon fell sideways as Talia took advantage and brought her sword down on the back of its neck.

She went flying backwards as it slapped her away. With my chest burning from the wounds, I darted in and stabbed into the demon’s eye before rolling sideways. I came to my feet and lunged in again. The demon was trying to hold its throat with its one clawed hand as it lunged to its knees.

This time my sword took the other eye before I side stepped the club like arm that stabbed at me. Talia was back looking bruised as she swung her sword at the other side of the demon’s neck. She jumped back as the demon turned blindly reaching for her.

That was what I needed and I took three fast steps and swung as hard as I could. The scimitar hit the demon’s neck with a dull meaty sound. I dropped to a squat under a swinging arm as the demon’s body began to fall and the head went the other way.

The roar from the battle outside rose and then I could hear the minor demons wailing. As the demon prince’s body jerked and spasmed Talia moved in carefully. She started hacking it apart and watched as the pieces smoked and burst into flames before disappearing.

I moved to the head and knelt. I placed my ring against the forehead and it began to smoke. Slowly the head began glowing and then it turned to ash. I sighed and lay back as the pain of my wounds hit me. It was a minute before Talia appeared beside me.

She lifted my body up and worked at pulling my padded jacket, vest and shirt off. She sat beside me and held me, “Edward, you need to heal these as you did me.”

I nodded and tried to ignore the burning fire that crossed my chest. I closed my eyes and pictured myself sitting with Talia holding me. When I had it firmly in place I thought of the healing bowl and lifted it in front of me. I put all of my concentration on the bowl and watched as it filled.

When it was full I brought it to my lips and began to drink. I did not stop until the bowl was empty and then I relaxed and let the bowl go. I opened my eyes and Talia hugged me before standing and pulling me up, “Come, we have to see how the Empire stands.”

I glanced at the faint scars that crossed my chest as we walked to the doors and Talia placed her hand on the door ring and pushed. The huge door opened smoothly and we looked out to see the huge square a mass of Kittlings. They were all kneeling as they faced us.

Suddenly they were on their feet with a roaring cheer. To one side of the doors were my four Kittling younglings with the battle steeds, wet nurses and the three mages. To the other were the five counselors and Armsmaster Kregis. Betrice and Solis slid into place beside Talia as Kregis walked to her and the crowd quieted.

He bowed, “Majesty, the empire stands and the demons have been defeated.”

Talia nodded and looked out into the sea of faces, “Our oaths to the High King have been fulfilled. The Demon Prince is dead.”

There was a silence and then the crowd raised their arms and cheered again. What followed was a huge celebration as Clan leaders descended on Talia. I relaxed with the kits as Talia sat beside me and accepted oaths of fealty. It was late when I smelled Talia and she started shifting restlessly.

I could feel myself becoming aroused and focusing only on Talia. When I growled she spun to look at me and her eyes widen. She stood quickly, “Solis, Betrice!”

Talia looked at Kregis, “See to protecting the kits. Put guards around my quarters and let no one enter.”

Talia pulled me up and after her. She looked at Solis and Betrice, “I need some light rope quickly!”

I stumbled after Talia until she pulled me into a huge room and across to a bed. She turned to pull the new shirt I wore off and finished undressing me, “hold on Edward.”

It was easier than the first time and I squeezed one of her hands. Solis was the first back and ran in with a coil of rope. Talia nodded to the bed and had me lay back before they tied me. Solis slipped out as Talia undressed and moved onto the bed.

I woke to sunlight with a feeling of being in one place for a long time. I heard Talia’s quiet voice and turned my head to see her holding a kit and talking to another Kittling. I cleared my throat and she looked at me and smiled, “Clear headed now?”

The Kittling with her grinned, “I think it is safe to untie him.”

I glanced at my wrists as Talia stood and walked to the bed. She set the kit on my chest before reaching out to untie me, “You were in rut for over a day my mate.”

I rubbed my wrists and caressed the restless kit as she untied my ankles, “I wish I could remember when I do that.”

Talia leaned over to kiss me, “Be glad you do not. Go wash.”

I slipped out of bed as she picked the kit up and turned back to the Kittling. I did not have to go far to wash. In a connecting room was a deep pool of warm water. When I came out Talia was alone with a clean set of clothes for me, “We need to go to the throne room.”

I frowned and she smiled, “Do not worry, everything as been cleaned and prepared.”

I nodded and dressed, Talia slipped her arm into mine as she opened the door, “I decided to allow the pregnancy to continue.”

I smiled and squeezed her waist as Betrice fell in beside us. When we walked into the throne room it was crowded with Kittling clan leaders. Again the six seals flared to life. The grey haired Kittling appeared in front of the throne and knelt, “The Empire is yours to command, your majesty.”

I bowed, “My queen commands the Empire.”

He smiled as he began fading, “Long may you reign Empress Talia.”
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