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Chapter XX

Lila was able to walk again, so she thought maybe she could ride. If she could, she'd go back to the capital, back to her queen. She had to warn Mahla about the Kanai, if it wasn't too late already. She forced herself into the saddle with many a groan as Levi and Shiri watched. Her legs were forced so wide apart as she straddled the horse's back that she felt a painful strain in her hips. She took a moment to get past the pain, and then gave the horse a light tap with the reins. The horse began a basic trot, and even that slight jostling was enough to cause Lila agony. She led the horse in a circle, thinking she could possibly get used to the feeling. When Lila felt she could handle the trot she gave the horse's sides a light kick and the horse began to canter. Lila's vision went white and she fell from the horse's back, grabbing her thighs. She hit the ground hard and the horse continued on without her.

Levi and Shiri were at her side in moments. Levi held a hand over her head and said a prayer that Lila could barely hear in her current state, and Shiri gently rubbed Lila's thighs. “Seriously, Lilly, don't push yourself so hard. You'll get there eventually. You're lucky enough my Father was able to heal your wounds at all, you nearly died. Hey, you got strong legs! I'm sure you'll recover in no time, justdon'tpushyourself, kay?”

Lila used to resent Shiri referring to her as “Lilly,” but she'd grown fond of the nickname this pretty young girl was calling her. She still hadn't gotten used to Shiri's non-stop, fast-talking, but Lila was finding she was more amazed at how much this girl had to say than annoyed at how much she did.

Both Levi and Shiri helped Lila to her feet. “I really wish I could do something to repay you both for this,” said Lila. “I'm no good for farm-work, though.”

Levi shook his head. “We don't expect repayment. Really, I'm just glad to be a healer again.”

“His life's purpose being fulfilled, that's my Pa. Lilly, a person who's hurt doesn't have to worry about other people, she can afford to be selfish until she's all better.”

“You don't have to baby me,” said Lila.

“Why not? You're such a cute baby.” Shiri said and kissed Lila's forehead. Lila blushed and Shiri giggled. “I'll take you back to the house so you can get some rest.”

“Thank you.”

Lila supported herself on Shiri's shoulder as the younger girl helped her along towards the house. Lila had been walking fine before, but the fall had brought back a lot of the pain from the original injury. Once they were inside, Shiri helped Lila lower herself into one of their chairs.

“You're such a mystery, Lilly.”

“What do you mean?”

“When I found you at the bottom of that cliff, broken and hurt you had daggers with you, and you were dressed in dark clothes. You've stayed with us for weeks, but you've never said anything about what your life was like before all of this. Lilly, look at me.” Shiri took Lila's chin in her hand and forced her to look into her eyes. Lila could feel her face burning, both from feeling the softness of Shiri's hands and from gazing into Shiri's eyes like this. “Do you think I'm a silly girl? A fool?”

“Not at all!” Lila said.

“Liar,” said Shiri as she let Lila's face go and looked away. “You're an assassin, aren't you?”

For a moment Lila considered denying the accusation, but she couldn't think of a plausible alternative story. “Yes, Shiri. I am.”

“I knew it!” Shiri actually seemed excited and smiled widely when she heard Lila's confirmation of her suspicions. “That's so exciting! How many people have you killed? Who were you going to kill that day that I found you? How much money can you make doing that? How did you get into that business?”

“I started training at a young age,” said Lila, deciding only to answer Shiri's last question. She'd found that with this hyperactive, curious girl it was the only way one could respond. “When General Meriel's forces invaded Arx I was a child in the village of Berknot.”

“The town where the commoners rose up and fought against the Nihilite invaders?”

“Yes.” Lila nodded. “Johath, the man who led the 'battle,' sent away the elderly and the children. I was only four, but I protested that I could fight and should be allowed to stay. They practically had to drag me away. We left the March of Muri, certain that the whole region would be destroyed before the war was over. In the County of Mt. St. Orson I was in the tavern, begging for food, when I saw a man with bright red hair at one of the tables. He had a long sword at his belt, and had a certain authoritative look about him. Even more interesting was who was sitting next to him, the cutest little blonde girl you could imagine. One look at her and I knew, 'this is someone I'm going to know for the rest of my life.' I asked them who they were, and the man with red hair said they were part of a mercenary company. When I asked if I could join, the man with red hair laughed at me, told me I couldn't join because I was a child. Someone else at the table with him said, 'You already let one little girl join, what's one more?' From that day until I was fourteen trained with the mercenaries. They figured out that I was good at hiding, so they trained me first as a scout, then as an assassin.”

“Led by a man with red hair who was taking care of a blonde girl? So this was the Dunn Banner Mercenary Company?” Shiri asked. Lila went silent. She hadn't expected that the clues she'd given would be enough for Shiri to put the pieces together. Clearly this girl was far more clever than Lila was giving her credit for. “That means that little blonde girl was Mahla, am I right? I'm right aren't I? Tell me! I'm right, right? Right?”

“Yes! Yes, you're right,” Lila said. “You going to spread that around now? By all means, get me killed, it's not as if I'm any use to Mahla anymore anyway.”

“You really are her! The same Lila that fought by her side when she took the throne! Mahla's lover!”

“I'm not Mahla's lover.”

“Yes! Yes you are! I've heard all about it!”

“No!” Lila protested. “No, Mahla doesn't like women, she likes men.”

“But you were in love with her from the beginning!”

“No I wasn't!”

“Yes you were! You said you took one look at her and knew you'd know her for the rest of your life!”

“Ok, fine, I've been in love with her for as long as I can remember, but that doesn't make me her lover!”

“Why not?”

“Because she rejected me!” Lila yelled. Shiri went totally quiet and stared at Lila with wide, surprisingly sympathetic eyes. Lila wasn't typically one to get emotional, but she could feel a lump in her throat as she explained. “Just before she took the throne I...I confessed my feelings for her. She was angry with me, told me I never should have said anything. I'm not Mahla's lover, and I never will be.”

After a moment of silence, Shiri reached out and touched Lila's hand. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have pried.”

“No, you shouldn't have,” said Lila. She'd managed to hold back her tears, but she could still feel the lump in her throat and a pain in her chest, the same way she felt on the day Mahla rebuffed her affections.

A murmur from outside had been growing steadily louder. The people in the village seemed to be laughing, some even singing. The more the sound persisted the more Lila and Shiri realized that everyone else had received some grand piece of news which the two of them had missed.

Shiri patted Lila's hand. “I'll go see what they're carrying on about.” She left Lila's side and emerged from the hut to see the village folk dancing and cheering. Her father was standing off to the side, arms folded and a smile across his face. “What happened?” Lila asked.

“Queen Aryn won! We just received word by pigeon that our queen is back on the throne and Mahla has been thrown in prison. Mahla's horrible reign is over! Even the noble houses that once supported her have turned against her. We'll never have to suffer under that tyrant again!”

Levi had said the words so loudly that Shiri just knew Lila heard them from inside the hut. She gave her father a brief smile, and then retreated into the hut where Lila was. Already Lila was up from the bed and gathering her things.

“Lilly, don't do anything crazy,” Shiri said.

“Your father is right, you won't have to live under Mahla's reign anymore,” Lila said. “But neither can I leave her to rot in the dungeon.”

“You can't even ride a horse without hurting yourself! How do you expect to make it to Aius? Seriously, tell me how you intend to make it. Remember earlier? You're not fully healed? How are you going to make it? How?”

“I'll walk if I have to.”

“Lila, don't!” Shiri placed both her hands on Lila's shoulders and pressed her up against the wall. Lila was surprised at just how strong this girl was. Shiri moved in her face close to Lila's so that only Lila could hear her voice. Lila caught the scent of roses in Shiri's hair. Shiri whispered to her. “She rejected you, remember? Not only that, she acted like your feelings didn't matter at all. She hurt you! You don't owe her anything.”

“Get out of the way, Shiri.”

“She doesn't love you, Lilly! I do!” Lila didn't even have time to truly realize what she'd just heard before Shiri kissed her forcefully. There was a fierce passion in Shiri's lips as she pressed them to Lila and pinned her harder against the wall. Lila could feel the curves of Shiri's body as she pushed up against her. For a moment, Lila completely succumbed to the bliss of Shiri's passion.

But then Lila grabbed Shiri's shoulders and pushed her back. “What are you doing?”

“Lilly, you know what I'm doing,” said Shiri as she leaned in again to kiss Lila.

Lila slipped away and stood back from Shiri. “What do you mean you love me?”

“You loved Mahla from the moment you saw her, just as I loved you the moment I saw your face. You were unconscious, but I knew from the beginning I'd found someone special, someone who would be dear to me. I love you, Lilly. I love you, I love you, I love you!”

Such sweet words. No one had ever spoken so kindly, or so romantically to Lila. She had to admit, Shiri was a beautiful girl, she'd been thinking that for a long time now. That kiss had left her pulse racing, and the brief moment where their bodies had touched had left Lila with a desire to touch Shiri some more. But Lila dismissed that as lust, it was Mahla that she loved.

Then again, why was Lila so insistent that her heart belonged to Mahla? After all, Mahla had rejected her, there was no future with her. Maybe there was a future with Shiri. At the least Shiri could be a pleasant distraction from Lila's heartbreak over Mahla.

Shiri stared at Lila with those sparkling eyes of hers, so full of affection. Lila could feel her heart melt for this sweet girl. Lila smiled, the first truly genuine smile Shiri had seen her give. “You win,” Lila said. “I'll stay here with you.”

Shiri ran to Lila and nearly knocked her over as she threw her arms around her in a tight embrace. “I'm so happy! You're staying!”

Lila returned the embrace and ran her fingers through Shiri's long, soft hair. Now that she finally had the chance to do it she realized how long she'd wanted to touch Shiri's hair. Lila could feel something stirring in her, something she'd not felt in ages. It had been so long she barely recognized it when it came along; happiness.

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About the author

Nicholas S. Casale

Bio: Nicholas S. Casale, or "Nico" as his friends call him, was born on Vandenberg Airforce Base in California. When he was eleven years old, he moved to Colorado with his family for his father's new job.

He went to Lewis-Palmer Middle School, where teacher Mrs. Susan Doyle got him interested in history by expressing to him that it was not about facts to memorize, but about stories to be told. During this time, English teacher Mr. Todd Mucci also taught him how to write, and he began work on his first piece of historical fiction.

Though his family was fairly secular, he attended a youth group at the Little Log Church in Palmer Lake, Colorado.

In college, he majored in history, and studied various mythologies and religions throughout the world. After college, he became certified as a paralegal and worked at Wal-Mart for the next three years while he tried to find a job with a law firm.

After landing his first paralegal job, he still felt something was missing in his life, and struggled with bouts of depression and loneliness. That was, until he started attending a Messianic Jewish Synagogue in Colorado Springs, where he met the Hebrew class teacher who would one day become his wife.

He is now happily married to Jenifer E. Casale, who wrote "The Whispered War" with him and is currently working on a feminine counterpart to the famous "Hero's Journey" theory devised by Joseph Campbell.

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