Taran of Landis inched his way down the ancient tree, oblivious to the rough bark nipping at his moist skin.
The son of the ruler of the kingdom of Landis had men enough yet came himself to visit whenever Taran was away more than a few days.
Taran straightened the satchels strapped across his chest, his gaze returning to the walls of Tiyan.
Taran glanced at him, wishing him gone.
But Taran wanted no favors from any man, even one who may have been a good man, had he been the son of any other.
Taran watched him fade into the forest with a warrior's stealth.
The woman fought him, and Taran struggled to stabilize himself, finally wrapping his arm around her neck and forcing her head against him.
Taran reached the lagging man and hacked him down, leapt over the body and one of the snapping traps, and continued.
Taran saw the two struggling figures teeter dangerously close to the edge of a pit.
Breathing hard, Taran eased off her.
"Don't touch her," Taran growled.
Battle lust made Taran eager for another fight, but he forced himself to calm, realizing he now had an entry into the heart of Tiyan.
He lifted his chin to the men holding Taran in place, and they released him.
He circled Taran in consideration.
"I saved your woman," Taran said.
"I am claimed by the Landis," Taran responded.
Taran shifted at the threat of the underground.
Taran tensed, the movement enough to snap one of the rusted fetters.
Taran roared again and beat on the walls.
Taran sought to remember the wise words of his friend.
Taran braced himself and opened his eyes.
Taran had heard of Tiyan's magic whispered by more than the people of Landis.
Taran breathed deeply of the sweet honey musk that made heat skitter across his blood.
At the sound of steel on leather, Taran lowered himself into a crouch.
The tension was heavy enough to make Taran lower his stance further.
Taran trailed the two from the room, ignoring the hushed exchange of words.
Taran stepped into a cavernous bedchamber lit by low burning hearths and scented by the white flowers sitting in each window.
Sensing her growing distress, Taran crossed to the door leading from the bedchamber into the hallway and opened it.
Taran lowered his arm, twitching in irritation.
When a strip of yellow lit the edge of the night sky, Taran returned to his perch in a large window facing the sunrise.
Sirian waited, his dark eyes going from Rissa to Taran, where they settled.
This danger Taran understood.
"I can," Taran confirmed.
Taran nodded and stripped off his tunic and excess weapons before dropping into a fighting stance opposite his challenger.
Taran settled into a comfortable morning with the good-natured warriors of Tiyan.
Taran doubted the people of Tiyan would spit on an elder like Jame as the people of Landis did.
Taran resisted the urge to protect her as he might Jame from Landis warriors, reminding himself of what he felt in her presence earlier.
Taran waited only a moment longer before approaching.
Taran met her blows and then attacked without his brute force, instead assessing her ability to react.
Taran stayed the sudden urge to challenge Sirian to a round.
Taran obeyed before Sirian contradicted her.
Taran felt Sirian's hard gaze again.
Aside from the dark moods of Rissa and Sirian, Taran sensed nervousness in the guards.
Taran nudged his horse forward into a slow trot.
"There's more than one scout," Taran said, eyes on Rissa's back.
Taran met the first attacker head on with his sword and sought to turn his horse with his legs.
Taran shoved his way through the attackers, hacking as he went, determined to reach Rissa.
Taran glared back and dispatched his attackers before hacking down the man between them.
Taran cursed the animal again under his breath and blocked two strikes before they broke free of the footmen.
Irritated with her spirit, Taran leapt from the horse and pursued, his long strides quickly cutting the distance between them.
Taran understood the look intimately.
Taran, I know who and what you are, even if you choose to deceive me!
Taran watched her, admiring but leery.
Taran whistled and offered a hand.
Taran, if you'll not take an oath to Landis or Tiyan, will you take an oath to me?
Taran released Rissa, and she hopped down, awaiting him.
Taran glanced warily toward him as he led the horse toward stables nestled along one wall of the stone fortress.
Taran strained to hear his response.
Taran handed off the horse to a stable hand and turned to watch as Sirian took Rissa's arm, leading her into a squat stone building at the center of the fortress.
Taran remained in the hall and paced as he studied the guards.
Taran glanced at him, taking in familiar cocoa features.
"No. He stayed behind," Taran replied.