“Hellsbane,” Tao muttered, freezing instantly into place. The tiger looking back at him was most definitely not Ruh; it was a smaller, sleeker tiger, perhaps two or three years old. ‘Probably ready to start his own Pride and looking forward to killing off a pesky human to start things off,’ he thought. Looking around for somewhere to hide or a weapon, Tao saw a rather large branch only a few feet away and began inching towards it.

            Something dropped from the tree above him and Tao jumped back in surprise, falling in the process. When he looked up, hoping to see Dar, he found instead a woman looking down at him. His mouth dropped open in shock as he took in her appearance. It was like looking at Dar’s sister, not twin, no, but definitely a relation. She was smaller than Dar but had the same blond hair, same gray-green eyes and the same features, though greatly softened on her simply by being a woman. When she smiled, Tao could see the same ready humor that was probably about to be at his expense, a disconcertingly familiar feeling.

“He won’t hurt you, stranger, he’s my friend. I hope you didn’t hurt yourself?” she asked.

“I ah, I…” Tao couldn’t find any words and the concerned expression that stole over her was much too familiar for comfort. “I’m Tao. Who are you? Are you Sulani? Of the Sula tribe?”

She shrugged. “My name is Laqua but I know not what tribe I am from. I am a foundling. My parents, the couple who found me that is, didn’t have any information about where I came from. What is this Sula tribe you mentioned? Do you know someone who looks like me?”

Tao laughed uneasily. “Yes, you could definitely say that. You, you look like you could be his sister!”

“Really? Where is he? Is he your friend?” she asked eagerly, looking around.

“He’s, he’s helping someone right now. Did you say that the tiger is your friend?” Tao asked, suddenly remembering what she’d first said. He accepted her hand to help stand and found her deceptively strong, hauling him to his feet with little trouble.

She blushed a bit and nodded. “I know that sounds very strange but I rescued him when he was a cub and he’s been with me ever since. We travel together. His name is Jin. Well, that’s what I call him at least.”

“Can you talk to him? Understand him?” Tao asked looking up at the tiger now reposing in the crook of a tree.

“I talk to him yes, but so far he hasn’t answered back,” Laqua replied with a grin. “Should he?”

“Well my friend, Dar, he ah, he speaks with all the animals. He also travels with a tiger, and two ferrets and an eagle,” Tao explained.

“Really? It’s a wonder you ever get anywhere,” Laqua observed with a wink. “I’d be happy to stay with you until your friend returns. I don’t know why he left you alone because this jungle isn’t the safest place in the world.”

‘She and Dar are definitely related,’ Tao thought, mentally rolling his eyes. “I’m fine, really. But I wouldn’t mind the company while I wait. I expect him back any time.”

Laqua nodded and smiled again. “Great! Let me get my gear.”

Tao waited as she climbed nimbly into the tree from which she had dropped and found himself watching her much closer than he should. The long line of her body so similar to Dar’s, the play of muscles beneath smooth skin, the way her golden braid bounced carelessly against a strong back, her bare feet gripping and moving easily over the bark. Feeling himself begin to harden, Tao firmly turned his eyes away.

She dropped again from the tree, this time with a bag across her shoulders and a dark wooden staff. “You fight with a staff.”

“It’s the best weapon,” she confirmed, sitting and motioning for him to join her.

“Let me guess. You can render an opponent powerless and yet not kill him in the process,” Tao said.

“Yes, of course. I do not kill unless absolutely necessary,” Laqua stated.

“Dar’s like that, too. He doesn’t even kill animals to eat,” Tao said.

“I don’t go quite that far. Usually Jin and I share our meals though he hasn’t yet acquired the taste for cooked meat.” Laqua replied with a grin, leaning against the tree and angling herself towards Tao. “What on earth does he eat if he doesn’t eat meat?”

“Whatever’s at hand. Fruit, vegetables, grains,” Tao explained. “It’s a rather boring diet but I’m not exactly a skilled hunter.”

“No, you’ve the look of a scholar,” Laqua agreed.

Surprised, Tao said, “I’m Eiron.”

“I’m sorry, that doesn’t mean anything to me,” Laqua apologized.

“Oh no, that’s all right. My people, we were all scholars for the most part. We lived for knowledge and debate and discovering everything about the world,” Tao explained.

Hesitant, Laqua asked, “What happened?”

“The blood priests, they overtook us, killing most of my tribe. I am one of the last,” Tao said, biting back the anger that was always present. He’d come to terms with it, especially his parent’s and brother’s deaths, with Dar’s help. It helped that Xinca was now free but it was still difficult. He was startled when a warm hand covered his own that were clenched in fists. Looking into deep blue eyes filled with tears, Tao whispered, “What’s wrong?”

“I can feel your pain, Tao, I am so sorry. You’ve lost so much and yet, you are still so good, so open,” she whispered back. “It’s not something that I have experienced often.”

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. Unclenching one of his fists, he put his hand on top of hers.

Not misunderstanding, she managed a faint smile. “It’s all right. We all have our demons to bear.”

“Will you tell me about it?” he asked.

“I grew up in a small village, until I was around ten my life was wonderful. My parents loved me and I had three older brothers who adored me. The village was prosperous and placed on the most beautiful stretch of land you would weep to see it in the spring. Then, the summer I was ten years old, we were attacked. None of my brothers or my father knew how to fight, they’d never had to learn, but they tried to defend us. My mother sent me into the forest to hide. I didn’t want to go but she told me that someone had to carry on the family name.

“So I hid in the forest and watched as they were slaughtered. The entire village murdered by the cruelest of men who wore bone armor and cared nothing for the pleas for mercy. They torched the village, didn’t even bother to plunder it. I didn’t understand. They took no slaves, didn’t rob, they just destroyed.

“After that, I just tried to survive. I did well though I almost died many times. Every time was through trusting my own kind though, not the animals. Eventually, I stopped trying to find a new home and realized that my only home was in my heart, in the memory of my family, and with the animals of the forest. I taught myself to fight by watching the animals. There was no way I would be caught defenseless like my family.”

Stunned by the parallels to Dar’s life, Tao didn’t know what to say at first. Maybe it went with being Sulani? Shaking that weird thought from his head, Tao asked, “With everything that happened to you, why do you refrain from killing?”

A faint smile crossed her face. “The ones who attack me are usually following orders and have no choice. Why kill them when disarming works just as well? The ones who order the attack are always just out of reach. I suppose I could reach them if I truly wanted to do so but what would be the point? That would serve nothing save to make me like them and I avoid that at all costs. My family deserves better than that.”

“You deserve better than this,” Tao whispered without thinking. Her brilliant smile overwhelmed him and it seemed as though he had everything he’d ever wanted. Someone who was caring, strong, honorable and passionate was looking at him like he was the most incredible person in the world. He knew when her eyes darkened that her thoughts had drifted along the same lines.

Without a second thought, Tao leaned forward and tasted her lips. She responded, pressing against his lips and opening her mouth. His tongue slipped into the wet heat and he moved forward the rest of the way, slowly pushing her down onto the ground. It had been so long and he’d been tormented by dreams so much lately that he didn’t question the connection that had formed between them.

Instead, Tao surrendered to the mass of feelings and sensations as her hands pulled his shirt up and ran over his bare skin. He deliberately and slowly ate her mouth, his tongue seeking hers in a dance of need and heat. So enthralled in exploring her body and her mouth was Tao that when the world tilted as Laqua threw him off, it was completely unexpected. She grabbed her staff and rolled to her feet in one motion, coming to stand protectively over him. Still foggy from the desire thrumming in his body, Tao didn’t at first realize what was going on.

A second later, he saw two tigers facing off, growling with hackles up. Tao knew it was Ruh and shouted, “No! Wait! Ruh! Jin!”

“You know that tiger?” Laqua asked in disbelief.

“It’s Ruh. Remember I told you that my friend travels with a tiger? That’s him,” Tao explained. “Can you call Jin off?”

“I can try,” Laqua said doubtfully, moving towards the two angry tigers.

But Ruh backed down suddenly, his hackles falling into place and the massive tiger lying down in apparent unconcern for the young tiger in front of him that was still growling softly. Then an almost comical look of surprise came onto Jin’s face as his head swung towards the forest. Shaking his head, the hackles fell away and he, too, lay down.

“What is going on?” Laqua demanded.

But Tao knew the change in behavior meant that Dar was nearby. As though his thoughts had summoned his friend, Dar stepped out of the trees, his eyes immediately seeking out Tao’s. Smiling in relief, Tao rushed forward and said, “Dar! I thought for sure we were going to have trouble here. Thank goodness you were here.”

“I sent Ruh ahead to make sure you were all right. When he encountered the other tiger, he thought you were in danger,” Dar replied softly, taking Tao’s outstretched hand and clasping it tightly. “Jin told him that he wasn’t welcome, that these were his humans and to leave. You saw how well Ruh took that.”

Jin considered him as his human? Tao wondered curiously. He hadn’t known either the tiger or Laqua more than an hour. Shrugging mentally, he said, “Dar, you have to meet Laqua.”

As he saw the two together, Tao again marveled at their similarities. Though definitely smaller and slighter, Laqua did indeed look enough like Dar to be his sister. Watching the two of them look each other over, Tao felt as though he were present at some animal rite of acceptance. Both were stiff and on alert, staves held at rest but ready to come to action at any moment. They circled each other warily. ‘Probably unconsciously,’ he thought with a grin. It was just what animals did when an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous rival came into their territory.

Which got him to wondering just whose territory had been broached. They were in Laqua’s jungle but Tao was Dar’s friend. He flushed as he remembered that he and Laqua were obviously at least that now. Remaining silent was one of the hardest things he’d had to do but he knew instinctively that if these two were going to accept each other, it would be on their own terms and he would have nothing to do with it.

“Your name is Dar?” Laqua commented.

Dar nodded, tossing his staff easily to his other hand as he moved.

“You left Tao here unprotected.” It was a challenge and Laqua’s staff also changed hands.

“He wasn’t alone,” Dar replied. He glanced up and saw that she saw Sharak circling high above. “I returned when it was time, though perhaps it was a little past time.”

The admission seemed more a challenge than anything else to Tao’s ears but he didn’t know what to make of the words.

Laqua obviously knew what he meant, however, because she grinned suddenly and leaned on her staff. “We could always flip a coin.”

Unexpectedly, Dar laughed, his own staff settling into a friendly position. Holding out an arm, he said, “I doubt that would be appreciated.”

Chuckling as well, Laqua accepted the arm and agreed, “Probably not.”

Tao breathed a sigh of relief. Things were going to be all right now. He still had no clue what they were talking about but if they were happy with the outcome, so was he.




You couldn’t have told me earlier? Dar demanded angrily.

She had just arrived. It’s not my fault that you move slowly, Sharak observed. Laqua, however, obviously isn’t slow and if you lose him, it’s going to be your own fault.

Dar glared at the eagle preening in a nearby branch. That was the trouble with having a friend who was under a curse; he didn’t mince words, especially when it came to love. Though at least the communication was easier than with the other animals. Having once been human, Sharak’s thoughts were remarkably well ordered and conversations with him were clear and concise. How long was she here before you called me?

She watched him for a few days. I called you when it looked as though she would make a move. She didn’t appear threatening and if the tiger hadn’t been involved, I probably wouldn’t have called you at all.

What? Dar demanded, furious now.

Tao needs more than you’re giving him, Sharak said implacably. If he finds it in this woman than I am hardly going to interfere. I just wasn’t certain of the tiger’s temperament because I knew she couldn’t read his thoughts. Despite her being Sulani. I wonder if Tao is naturally drawn to those of your tribe.

Growling at the sly tone to the eagle’s thoughts, Dar exclaimed, “Next time, you can save yourself from the Ancient One!”

            Though there were no thoughts, Dar distinctly felt Sharak roll his eyes mentally before flying away.

            “Dar? Is everything all right?”

            Dar turned towards Tao and nodded abruptly. “Fine. Sharak’s just being a…being himself.”

            Grinning, Tao said, “I keep telling you not to ask him for advice since you obviously never like what he has to say.”

            “I don’t need it from you as well, Tao,” Dar muttered.

            Concerned now, Tao moved closer and said, “I’m sorry, Dar, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

            Dar sighed, trying to lose the unsettled feeling that had arrived with Laqua’s challenge for Tao and had as yet to leave. That had been three days ago. The worst thing was that Tao was a completely different person in Laqua’s presence. He seemed more confident, more himself somehow, than when it was just he and Dar.

He wasn’t talking as much and that was throwing Dar off as well. It was as though he didn’t need to talk, that maybe his talking had been a compulsive thing to combat Dar’s natural silence. Laqua talked more than Dar, naturally. ‘They complement each other well,’ Dar was forced to admit. Laqua had a thirst for knowledge almost as great as Tao’s. Tao was now the teacher, something in which he obviously thrived. “You didn’t, Tao. I’m upset with myself and no one else. Sharak was merely a convenient target.”

“You don’t like it here,” Tao observed quietly, looking up into Dar’s eyes.

“Here is as good a place as any,” Dar refuted, unable to look away from Tao. He’d missed being able to look into Tao’s eyes without anyone watching. Jin was almost as bad as Laqua in that respect. Ruh had finally scolded him away from the humans altogether under the guise of ‘elder privilege’. The light in the green-brown eyes reflected the fading sunlight brilliantly and Dar wanted nothing more than to bury himself in their depths and Tao’s mouth.

Tao looked relieved and he said, “I’m glad. I know you know but, I really appreciate you staying here with Laqua and me.”

Laqua and me. The phrase shot to Dar’s heart and suddenly he knew that he’d lost Tao to the woman. Closing his eyes painfully, Dar knew that Sharak had been right. Tao had needed more than Dar had given and now that it was freely offered from someone else, he had taken it.

“Dar? What’s wrong?”

Swallowing against the pain, Dar opened his eyes and forced a smile. “Nothing. I’m fine. I was actually thinking that it might be a good time to move on. Maybe tomorrow or the day after.”

“Oh. I see. I ah, I was hoping we could stay here for a while longer. Laqua’s been alone for a long time and I ah, I was thinking…”

“It’s all right Tao. I know that you’re going to stay,” Dar interrupted.

Obviously surprised, Tao blinked at him silently for a moment then smiled in relief. “You’re not upset? I wasn’t sure how you’d take the news.”

Upset that his heart was being shattered into a thousand pieces? Why would that upset him? Aloud he said, “It’s great, Tao. You deserve every bit of happiness that you find. I’m just sorry that it took you so long to find someone who loves you the way you need to be loved.”

Smiling broadly, Tao replied, “Better late than never, right?”

Dar was taken aback when his friend pulled him into a hug but he immediately wrapped his arms around Tao and held tight. In the few seconds that he held Tao, he memorized the feel of their bodies together, the familiar wool and sweat scent of his friend and the softness of Tao’s hair against his shoulder and chin. “Be happy, Tao.”

“You’ll find someone, Dar, I believe that with all my heart,” Tao said, pulling back but still clasping Dar’s arms.

Dar looked down into his eyes, unable to help the ironic smile. “I’ve had my great love, Tao. I have no wish to go through this, through that kind of pain again.”

Troubled, Tao said, “You shouldn’t think like that Dar.”

“I don’t, Tao, honestly. Look, Kodo has gotten himself into trouble again so I’m going to find him. I’ll see you in a bit.”

“That little rodent is going to end up in one bad spot too many one day,” Tao predicted with a grin. He squeezed Dar’s arms once more then released him and stepped back. “I’ll see you back at camp.”

“Goodbye Tao,” Dar whispered as his friend left the area. Fortunately, his staff was with him so he wouldn’t have to return to the camp for it. Leaving now would be the best thing for them all.




“I don’t understand,” Tao repeated fretfully. “He said he would be back!”

Laqua watched as Tao paced the small clearing, stopping to look into the darkness every minute or so. Dar had vanished the night before and while she knew the reason, Tao obviously did not. The gift of being able to sense strong emotion from those she was close to was working against her now, she thought with a sigh. She had thought that Tao would love her; he’d certainly latched onto her quickly enough. Shaking her head at her own stupidity, Laqua said, “Tao, will you sit with me? I need to talk with you.”

Startled out of his thoughts, Tao smiled and complied, sitting beside her and taking her hand. Laqua smiled in return, thinking, ‘He really is the most handsome man,’ and squeezed his hand. “I know why Dar left and he won’t be coming back.”

“What? Why didn’t you say anything? What’s going on?” Tao demanded.

“Tao, I love you. I have from the first moment I saw you cursing at the mud you’d accidentally fallen into,” Laqua revealed with a grin. She saw him calculating and confirmed, “A few days before we actually met, yes. I watched you and fell more in love with you as the days passed. At first I thought it was curiosity and loneliness but it was real and I needed to meet you, not just watch as I always did with others.

“When you reacted to me as you did, I thought for sure that you were falling in love with me as well. That the tales of ‘love at first sight’ my mother told me as a little girl were true. Then I met Dar and realized that it wasn’t me whom you loved. I am a lot like Dar but I am not Dar, Tao. The similarities are pretty much only physical. I’m sure we are both Sulani and I am grateful to have even that knowledge of where I am from. Without meeting you, I would never have known.

“But you love him, Tao, not me. Dar loves you as well, very much. That is why he left. I’m sure that he couldn’t bear to see us together.” Laqua waited but Tao didn’t do anything for a long moment except sit very still, obviously thinking about what she’d said.

“You were talking about me. When you and Dar first met,” Tao said slowly, piecing things together.

Laqua snorted as she remembered. “Yes we were.”

“Dar was right, I do not like the thought of you two flipping a coin for me,” Tao said absently.

Patience was something Laqua had learned very well and she used it right now. She sat still, loosely cradling Tao’s hand in hers and not pressuring him in any way: neither towards Dar, nor away from him. This was Tao’s decision. She didn’t know why he’d buried thoughts of Dar and him together, but he had obviously done so very deeply. Now that she’d made him aware of them, and confirmed Dar’s feelings for him, Laqua knew it was a big thing with which to grapple.

Just because he was aware of them didn’t mean he was going to act on them, the hope to which Laqua clung. And as good a person as Laqua tried to be, she wouldn’t deny Tao for Dar’s benefit. If this gentle man chose her, Laqua would make him as happy as she could for as long as she could and damn the rest of the world. There was something about this man that brought out her protective streak. She knew Dar felt the same but couldn’t find it in herself to let Tao go if he wanted to stay. But when he raised his eyes to hers, Laqua knew she had lost and closed her eyes in pain.

“He had that same expression last night,” Tao whispered. “I didn’t know what it meant but I do now. I’m so sorry, Laqua.”

Breathing against the pain, Laqua opened her eyes and said, “I know. I also know that if we don’t leave now, we’ll probably never find him again.”

“Thank you,” Tao said, kissing her briefly.

Turning from him, Laqua called, “Jin! We need you!”




You are an idiot, you do know that don’t you? Sharak commented.

Shut up Sharak. I don’t feel like talking to you right now, Dar replied darkly.

Should have Tao here, Ruh agreed, his thoughts not as clear, but agreeing in sentiment.

Great. Now they were ganging up on him. He should have known it would only be a matter of time. They always thought they knew what was best for him. Tao was what was best for him but he wasn’t the best for Tao. Somehow, even after almost a whole moon cycle, he hadn’t been able to make them see that. Dar shifted so that he didn’t face any of his friends, huddled in on himself against the pain.

He went on as he’d always done. He helped those who needed it and fought against the Nords who were growing ever more powerful. He saved as many of the animals as he could, keeping them safe from the people who thought the animals were there only to serve. He knew of the tales about him that were growing because he fought with a fierceness and abandon he hadn’t before. He took more chances than needed, jumping into frays from which there was no possible way of escaping and yet somehow, he always did.

It didn’t really matter whether or not he lived, not to himself at least. The gnawing emptiness in his heart and soul was a black stain that would never be gone. He did his best to wash it away by protecting those who could not protect themselves. Instead of growing smaller, the emptiness just grew. There was only one thing that would stop it and Tao was far away, living the life he was meant to live with the woman he was meant to have.

“You are a difficult man to find.”

Dar froze at the familiar voice but couldn’t move to see if he was hallucinating or if Tao was really standing just behind him.

“You also haven’t been taking care of yourself. You’re far too thin.”

The disapproval in Tao’s voice was much too real to be a hallucination and Dar rolled over. Tao stood a few paces away, looking at him with an odd expression Dar couldn’t identify. “Food is scarce.”

“Not that scarce. I think I can count your ribs without even touching you,” Tao scolded. He crossed the scant distance and sat beside Dar. “I’ve also been hearing about how you take on entire squadrons of Nords without a thought to your own safety. You move through them like a hot knife through butter. Have you suddenly developed a death wish? There is a price on your head, now, in case you didn’t know it.”

“I may have taken a few chances,” Dar admitted slowly. He glared at Ruh who huffed in disbelief at his answer.

Tao obviously didn’t believe him either, an eyebrow arcing up. “Right. A few chances. So let me pose a question.”

Dar stiffened in anticipation. Tao never prefaced his comments with that unless it was going to be something he didn’t want to hear.

“If you’re so eager to take chances and repeatedly, and moronically I might add, by wiping out squadron’s of Nords, then why didn’t you want to take the chance of telling me you loved me? Why not give me the chance to say whether or not I loved you back? It’s not even a life threatening chance,” Tao pointed out. “Certainly less dangerous than twenty-to-one, armed odds since I don’t even carry a weapon.”

“You carry the sharpest weapon of all Tao,” Dar countered.

“My words,” Tao guessed slowly.

“Your words,” Dar confirmed.

“You were so afraid of what I would say that you didn’t say anything at all.”

“No! No Tao, that wasn’t it,” Dar denied.

“Then what?” Tao exclaimed, frustrated.

“I wanted you to be happy. Above everything else, especially myself, you should be happy. I wanted, I want for you to have someone to love you as you deserve to be loved,” Dar said. He got to his feet and moved away. “I saw how you changed after only a few days with Laqua and knew she was the one for you. I didn’t want to stand in the way of your happiness.”

Laughter, even as weak as Tao’s was, wasn’t the reaction that Dar had expected. Turning to face his friend, Dar demanded, “What?”

“Oh Dar. We are more a pair than you ever would guess,” Tao gasped. Standing himself, he crossed the distance and reached up to grasp Dar’s face with his hands. “I have loved you almost since I first met you. When you rescued me I should say. You loved Kira, though, and I pushed it all away. All my feelings for you were unimportant because she made you so happy. I forced myself to think of you differently. And then she was killed and you were in pain and there was no way I was going to bring up my feelings. I just wanted to be there for you.

“Owen, Arina, the centaurs, Kim and Xinca, Zad and Voden, one thing right after another and never the time to dwell on what might be. You never even hinted in all that time that you felt anything other than friendship for me, Dar. If you had, I would have seized on it in a second,” Tao exclaimed.

“So all this…” Dar whispered.

Tao chuckled weakly with a nod. “For nothing.”

Dar felt like finding the nearest cliff and jumping off it.

“This is the last chance that I’m letting you take, Dar. Are you going to?” Tao asked softly.

The emptiness began to retreat at the first touch of their lips. When Tao’s arms went around him, the pain started to leave as well. As their bodies touched, Dar lost all thought save for his answer. Against Tao’s demanding lips, he murmured, “Yes.”