Bowstring and Steel 1 and 2
Chapter 1: Faces to the Fire

Caution: This Action/Adventure Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Consensual, Romantic, Heterosexual, Fiction, First, Cream Pie, Violent, Military,

Desc: Action/Adventure Sex Story: Chapter 1: Faces to the Fire - A Ranger and a Paladin find love on the battlefield. This is the first in the Bowstring and Steel universe, set as a counterpoint to my sci-fi Solar Wind series. These are chapters 1 and 2 of an ongoing fantasy series.

'Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of the Rangers.'

I volunteered. That's on me. I knew going into this war that I might not come out alive.

I remembered the story that had made me volunteer for service. It had been passed down for one hundred years by the bards and in books. There were originally two hundred soldiers of the Imperial Army trained by The Battlemaster himself. He said his rank was Sergeant Major, and his name was Jack Parker. He had been drawn to our world by the Emperor's Mage, and once he had been informed of our situation, had trained those he deemed worthy in the Way of the Ranger.

He drilled them constantly until they met his exacting standards in both ranged and melee combat as well as survival skills. He was harsh, yet fair in all of his judgments. He led by example, and they were hard pressed to keep up with him.

He instilled in our ancestors The Tactics, The Creed and The Standing Orders. He decreed Elves should be allowed the same consideration as Humans for selection for Ranger training. He made certain that all of his rules and regulations were written down and followed when the time of his death finally came. He refused to die in bed, and instead stood before the Ogres with bow in hand one final time.

He had arisen from what would have been his death bed and dressed in his combat uniform, which he called his BDUs. He grabbed his bow and quiver, and rode out with twenty of his Rangers to the battlefield outside our Capital at Arathias. He had dismounted, seemingly healthy and fully in control of himself. He had rallied on his last day, and had refused the potion that would have eased his passing. From the recorded history, his last words to the Physician resonated across time. "Fuck you, Doc. If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die like a Ranger should. Hooah?"

He had crouched with his Rangers, waiting in ambush, and as the Ogres approached, he stood and let fly his arrows one after the other along with his fellow Rangers. When he fell, his quiver was empty and his daggers were stained with the blood of the Ogres who had fallen around him. He had been the only Ranger to fall during that battle. He had been brought back to the Keep of Zhalek and given a Hero's Burial. His children and grandchildren attended, and a statue was raised in his honor. His teachings were passed down through the years, and the tide of the war finally turned in our favor to become a slow but steady push of the Giant Kin from our lands.

Now we stand at the end of this century long war. Until our Battlemaster showed us the way, and led through his example, we had been losing to the overwhelming might of the Ogres and Frost Giants. Now we stood ready to end their threat to Arethor once and for all.

There were twelve of us. One squad of Rangers flanked on our left by twenty Paladins of Harsk, and on our right by eight Battlemages of the Guild.

My name is Jonathan Hawke, and I'm an Imperial Ranger.

I looked across the large expanse of Stone's Throw Bridge at where the enemy would be in a matter of moments. When they reached the middle of the bridge itself, we would strike where their numbers wouldn't count for much. We would shoot into their number, and then we would charge in with the Paladins and Battlemages. Our arrows were nocked already, and we were prepared to kill and die for our freedom, and the chance to end this long war that had claimed so many of us.

"What will you do after the war is over, Jon?" Hanelor asked me.

"Long term? Not sure yet, sweety. Short term, I plan to grab the biggest mug of beer I can find and get plastered. How about you?" I grinned. Sure, she was a Paladin of Harsk, and chaste, but that didn't mean I couldn't flirt with her. We had served together as part of the same joint strike team for five years. Under the dulled steel plate of her armor, she was a beautiful woman.

"If we survive, I think I might join you in getting drunk. Gods know it's been too long." She laughed back. We looked at each other and shared a smile. We had saved each other's lives countless times in countless battles. I had made a pass at her once, but she had rebuffed me in favor of her vows. I respected her even more after that, and had apologized. It had been a heated moment after the Battle of Farsight Ridge, and she had embraced me in relief that the battle was over. We had kissed passionately for a moment before she broke the kiss and pushed me back. She apologized as I did, and we had laughed it off.

"You bought the last round after Sullen Gully, Hanelor. This one's on me." I nodded to her.

"Gods' sakes, Jon. Stop flirting with my Sister." Jalin spoke up with a laugh.

"Don't worry, First Marshal. I promise not to deflower her ... unless she wants me to." I laughed at my other old friend in the Paladins of Harsk. Jalin was a grizzled old veteran of a hundred campaigns who had joined the Paladins after his wife had died. His children were grown, and he knew nothing but combat. He figured he would die with a sword in his hand, facing the fire of battle. I liked and respected him.

"Blasted Rangers." Jalin laughed. Our people were talking amongst themselves in low voices while we waited. All of us sharing quick glances but keeping the majority of our attention on the pass over the far side of the bridge.

We chose the bridge for our killzone instead of the pass because the bridge was narrower. Fewer Ogres or Frost Giants would be able to cross at a time.

"I can handle him, Brother Jalin. I am not so easily tempted." But even as Hanelor said it, she threw me a wink and a smirk. I raised my eyebrow at her, and she grinned at me.

"Hawke, if I have to tell you one more time to stop flirting with the Paladin, I will bring you up on charges." Denna said, and I winced. Our Commanding Officer, Captain Denna la Cyr, noblewoman and a damn good Ranger was also very jealous of her 'boys', as she called us. Everyone knew that she was with our Second, Lieutenant Halas Wolfbane. It didn't take a seer to figure that out.

"You jealous, Denna?" I turned and blew her a kiss in full view of her lover, who glowered at me. I looked at him and chuckled. "Gods, Halas. I was joking. You take everything way too seriously."

Halas was a good Ranger, and under his very strict code, there was a good Elf. They wouldn't make it after the war, unless they both left Arethor. She would return to court and probably be married off to any nobleman who would have her, and Halas would return to his Elven kingdom to the south. Probably to take a wife there. But that was only if we survived this battle.

One of the reasons I joined the Rangers is that the Rangers don't care what Race we are. My Half-Elven heritage was plain to see in my emerald green eyes and pointed ears, while my black hair was from my Human father. Another giveaway was the stubble on my face. All full Elves, male and female are blonde, and can't grow facial hair, whereas all full Humans have dark brown, red, or black hair. All blonde Humans on Harthis have at least some Elven blood in them.

I was accepted in spite of my mixed heritage. I stand 6 feet even, and I weigh a solid 170 pounds of wirey muscle. My form fitted green, black, and brown leather armor was done in the camouflage pattern taken from The Battlemaster's combat uniform from centuries before. It helped hide us in the forests in which we fought so we could ambush the enemy. I ran my hand back through my short cropped hair.

"Here they come!" Ranger Calvin Crane shouted. He pointed, and we saw them coming down from the pass towards the bridge itself.

"I guess they'll call this one 'The Battle of Stone's Throw'," said Hanelor.

"Then let's make it the last battle of this fucking war." I cursed, and I didn't care. This was fight and win, or lose and die. Vel'shorek, the last surviving Frost Giant Commander, had rallied his Frost Giants and Ogres for one final charge toward the Capital. The only way from their staging area to Arethias Castle was through us.

"Hold, Rangers! Wait for optimal range!" Denna shouted. She had an arrow nocked, just like the rest of us.

"By Harsk, they're armored!" Jalin swore as they came into full view. He was right. From head to toe, the 10 foot tall Ogres and Frost Giants were encased in steel plate.

"Rangers! Aim for their eyes!" I shouted and raised my aim to where I knew it would penetrate the eyeslits in their helms. All my brother and sister Rangers adjusted their aim to compensate.

They advanced when they saw us, picking up their pace to cross the bridge. I did a head count as they came into view. "Two hundred enemies approaching." I thought about us twelve Rangers, twenty Paladins of Harsk, and the eight Battlemages set to unleash their own brand of hell on the enemy. Forty against two hundred. The odds were nearly even, but still stacked in our favor. I smiled.

As they entered range, Denna shouted "RANGERS!" We shot our arrows as fast as we could draw, nock, pull, and shoot. One per second. Our first volley took down the lead ranks of Ogres as they started running across the bridge. Our second volley took down several more ranks. By the time our quivers were empty, we had taken down seventy of the enemy force. Their bodies littered the bridge, but the remaining Ogres and Giants just kept charging.

The Paladins drew their broadswords as one, closed the visors on their helms, and advanced with shields locked in the Phalanx.

We Rangers collapsed our bows and sheathed them in our rear belt holsters before drawing our twin long daggers strapped to our thighs. Our shining steel blades were sharper than razors, and would slice through the enemy faster than a wraith's claws. We took up position to charge as soon as the Paladins had the enemy engaged.

When the Paladins engaged, we sprinted for them, jumping onto the back rank of Paladins' backs and leaping at our enemies with blades drawn and flashing in the morning sun. I slashed through the neck of one Ogre beneath his helm, kicked off his chest and leapt at my next target. I sank both my blades into the Frost Giant's chest, and rode his body down before leaping into the air again. "RANGERS!" I shouted as I became a whirlwind of doom upon them.

We were joined by the Battlemages, their fists glowing with their combat spells as they leapt at the Ogres and Frost Giants as well. They sliced through the enemy's armor more swiftly than any blade, and struck with precision against their targets. I saw several Paladins fall and a couple of my brother Rangers, but we kept charging and killing. "FOR HARSK AND JUSTICE!" Jalin shouted to his remaining Paladins, and they gave no ground to our advancing foes.

I saw Ranger Kavorn vo Stell fall when a Frost Giant backhanded him off the bridge, but I leapt and avenged him, slicing through the Giant's neck with both blades and severed his head. I would tell Denna after this was over and we would retrieve his body. No Ranger would be left behind.

I turned and saw the Paladins break Phalanx and take individual Ogres, making short work of our enemy. The Ogre and Frost Giant ranks had mostly broken, but they still outnumbered us by a hefty margin.

A quick glance showed Hanelor being driven back by two mace wielding Ogres, and her shield was getting pounded hard. I sprinted for her closest attacker, and slid under his legs, slamming my left hand dagger up into his groin. He screamed and collapsed to his knees I I slid forward and rose to my feet. I sliced his throat that was now at eye level, and he fell over dead. Hanelor let out a laugh and thrust her broadsword forward into the remaining Ogre's gut, disemboweling him.

Then I saw him. Vel'shorek was coming forward with his massive hammer in hand. His blue skin was mostly hidden by his heavy plate armor that he seemed to wear like a summer tunic. I saw him catch a Battlemage in mid leap and throw the man off the bridge. Hanelor and I looked at each other and nodded. We then turned and sprinted at the Giant together.

"RANGERS!" I shouted to get Vel'shorek's attention and give Hanelor the chance to get behind him to strike. He swung his hammer at me with a speed I wouldn't have thought possible. I barely dodged the blow which sent stone chips flying from the surface of the Bridge itself. I slashed downward at his exposed arm as he started to lift his hammer, and gouged his wrist. He screamed a guttural roar and then it was cut off. A look of surprise showed on his face and he looked down to see his own blue blood coating the Paladin's broadsword now sticking out of his chest.

Hanelor had severed his heart from behind, and she rode him forward as she removed her sword and the Giant Commander fell dead on his face.

The remaining Ogres and Frost Giants heard their Commander scream, and saw him die by our hands. They charged us, and we sprinted to meet them. Our Rangers, Paladins, and Battlemages pursued them and cut them down from behind before most of them could even reach us. Hanelor and I were pushed back as we fought them hand to hand and blade to blade. We finally broke free enough to sprint forward and engage on our terms. Our strikes were deadly, and soon the enemy was broken. True to their form, the Ogres and Frost Giants had fought to the last.

We breathed heavily and I found Denna kneeling over the body of Halas. He had died to protect her.

I placed a hand on her shoulder. "He died a Ranger, Denna. Kavorn went over the side, so we'll need to retrieve his body as well."

She dried her tears and stood. "No man left behind, Ranger. Hooah?"

"Hooah, Denna." I answered.

Denna sent two Rangers to retrieve Kavorn's body. We had lost four Rangers, while the Paladins had lost eight of their own. The Battlemages had only lost two, and they helped us gather our dead for return to the Capital and Burial with Full Honors.

I sat on the low battlement of Stone's Throw Bridge and took a swig from my canteen. Hanelor removed her helm and sat next to me. I handed her the canteen and she took a long gulp before handing it back with a smile. "Thanks, Jon." I noted her short cropped dark brown hair with a smile. Cut to military fasion like mine. Her bright blue eyes were heavy lidded with fatigue.

"Anytime, Hanelor." I said. I saw the two rangers return with Kavorn's body, and set him beside our other dead.

Denna spotted us and came to sit on my other side. She took her canteen and drank deeply. "Hell of a fight, Jon." She said.

"Yes it was, Denna." I agreed. "They never stood a chance against us."

"Hooah, Ranger." She smiled a sad smile and tears fell from her eyes.

Hanelor and I stood to leave her to her grief. I knew Denna, and she wouldn't want anyone comforting her. We walked forward a ways from our friend and I turned to her. "When we get back, I know I'll probably never see you again."

"I'll be going back to the Monastery, it's true." She said. She gave me a sad smile and a look of longing in her eyes.

I couldn't stop myself and stepped forward until we were closer than before. I touched her face and my fingers traced the scar she'd gotten at the Battle of Western Sky River, where I had first saved her life. Her gauntleted hand came up and covered mine as she leaned into my palm. Her eyes closed and I saw a single tear roll down her dirt covered face. I leaned forward and kissed her lips for the second time in our lives, and she threw her arms around my neck. We clung to each other, neither one of us wanting to let go.

I was in love with her. I realized it when I saw that this was the last we may ever see of each other. "I love you, Hanelor."

"I love you too, Jon." She whispered into my neck.

"There you two are." Jalin said with a smile as he walked towards us. In spite of him approaching, Hanelor didn't let go of me.

"Hello, Jalin. We've won." I said as I held Hanelor close. She finally turned to look at him and disengaged our embrace.

"Yes we have, haven't we? All these years of war, and we won it with a final skirmish." He grinned widely.

"We have, Brother. I quit." Hanelor stunned both of us with her declaration.

"Hanelor, what do you mean?" Jalin blinked rapidly several times as he tried to process what she had just said.

"I mean I'm resigning. I was never in Harsk's service by choice, and you know it. I've done my duty to Harsk and the Empire. The war is over now, and I choose my own path from now on." Hanelor crossed her arms over her steel breastplate.

Jalin considered what she had said, then nodded. "Can you wait and resign after the victory celebration and awards ceremony? You're both going to be honored for killing Vel'shorek, you know. I will hear your Final Confession and take your Resignation of Commission afterward."

She looked at me with that same longing look from before. "Only if I can break my vow of chastity before I resign."

Jalin looked at us both, and his eyebrows shot up to his hairline. "Hanelor, I am going to walk away for about an hour or two. What you decide to do in that time is between you and Jon. I know nothing, and I have already forgotten what you just said." He smiled at us and turned around to walk back towards our joint unit.

Unlike most Paladins who had been trained from early childhood in warfare and service to Harsk, the War God and Meter of Justice, Jalin was already an experienced soldier when his wife had passed from this life. He found the solitude and Brotherhood of the Monastery of Harsk comforting, and had easily learned their spells of healing.

"You would throw away your Commission to be with me, Hanelor?" I asked.

"I would, Jon. I love you, and nothing is going to change that. I cannot serve Harsk any longer when He would have us deny our love. I wasn't sent to the Monastery by choice, though I have fulfilled my duties tirelessly since I became a Paladin. I will continue to protect the defenseless and help everyone I can, but I can't do that in service to Harsk if it means losing you." She poured her soul out for me, and I took her in my arms again.

"You won't be alone in that, Hanelor. I think it might be time for me to move on as well. I love being a Ranger, but I love you even more." I admitted. We broke the embrace and looked at each other. I smiled and motioned toward the camp.

Hanelor grinned and we walked quickly back to where our camp was set up. It would take at least an hour for the wagon to get here to collect the dead, and we needed to wash ourselves of the grime of war. I showed her the secluded spring off the stream running near the camp and we began to undress. Hanelor slowly unlatched her armor piece by piece until she was down to just her chainmail suit and tunic with trousers. I pulled off my leather armor, quiver harness, and belt, putting everything neatly in a folded pile. I watched her remove her boots, trousers, and tunic as I removed my boots and leggings.

When I saw her naked body for the first time, my breath caught in my throat and I got hard instantly. She was beautiful. Athletically built and femininely muscular. The definition in her arms and legs did nothing to detract from her beauty. She saw my response to her nudity and blushed fiercely as she looked down shyly. I moved towards her and took her hand in mine. She looked up into my eyes and smiled as she stepped into my arms. We kissed as our bodies touched for the first time skin to skin.

She moaned into our kiss and I moaned back at the pleasure of feeling her lips and body pressed against mine. She stepped into the water of the natural spring and pulled me in with her. I went willingly, and we washed each other clean. She traced the scars on my chest with her fingers as I kissed her neck and down to her breasts. Her breasts were full and firm, and her nipples were hard in spite of the warm summer air and the warmth of the water we were in.

We had no more words to express our feelings, so our bodies spoke for us what our voices could not. I took her left nipple between my lips and sucked gently as I licked it. She moaned louder and her head went back with her eyes closed in pure ecstasy. She sighed with pleasure as I moved to her other breast, repeating what I had done and eliciting even more moans and gasps of joy. I moved my hands down her back and cupped her ass cheeks in each hand. I then slid my hands under the water to stroke her smooth thighs. Her hands grasped the back of my head, holding my mouth to her breast as I suckled her.

I reached down in between us with my right hand and slipped a finger in between her pussylips, causing another sweet moan and gasp of pleasure from her open mouth. I slowly pushed it into her, feeling her slippery wetness that I knew wasn't the water from the spring. She was, like all Paladins, completely hairless below her neck. They believed that to be pure in the service of Harsk, they must keep their bodies completely shaven, including their nether regions. I had never been with a woman who shaved her pussy before, but I had a feeling that I would not regret this, or the rest of our lives together.

She then gave voice to her desire. "Make love to me, Jon. Please take me and make me yours."

I didn't speak my answer. I just picked her up with her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist as I supported her thighs with my arms and walked us back to the dry bank of soft grass at the edge of the spring. I laid her down and looked into her sky blue eyes. I ran my hand through her close cropped brunette hair. I said nothing, but smiled at her and kissed her as she spread her thighs, inviting me into her most sacred of places. I was harder than steel and more than ready.

For five long years we had been kept apart by war and duty, though we had fought side by side. We had grown close over our years together, confiding fears and dreams. Talking of what our lives would have been like after the war. Today was the culmination of those years of wants and needs. It was the consummation of our love for each other that we had so long denied. I entered her slowly, my cock head parting her petals and slipping inside her.

I thrust into her tight wetness slowly. I reached her maidenhead and she just smiled and nodded once. She was prepared for the pain, but also the pleasure that would follow. I nodded back and thrust deep and hard. She winced, but didn't cry out. I held myself inside her and watched her face turn from a grimace into a smile as she opened her eyes again. I smiled back and kissed her as I moved in and out, thrusting slowly and moving my hips back and forth.

Her moans filled my mouth and ears as our tongues caressed each other and danced slowly together. She was so tight and hot, and the more we moved together, the wetter she became. She thrust up against me as I thrust into her, and we gasped as our kiss broke. She moaned loudly and her virgin pussy clasped me inside her as she came. Her moans and convulsions exploding out from her center and into me. I felt the buildup coming and my balls tightened as I swelled inside her. I tried to pull out, but she locked her ankles around my waist and pulled me deep as I unloaded my cum into her. We had fought hard together, and now we came just as hard in unison. I cried out wordlessly as our union was fulfilled, and she gasped with wordless joy. Her moans filled my ears again as we came down from the peak.

"Are you ok, Hanelor?" I asked as I stroked her face and looked into her eyes. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"I'm fine, Jon. You did not hurt me after the initial shock of my maidenhead breaking. You more than made up for that with how you made love to me." She grinned warmly and kissed me lovingly.

I returned her kiss with equal ardor, then broke it gently to look into her eyes again. "Hanelor, what do you want to do after the ceremony and celebration?"

"More of this, if that's ok with you?" She raised one eyebrow and grinned at me.

"It's more than ok with me, Hanelor." I laughed as I rolled off of her and pulled her against my side. She molded her body to mine as we dried off in the warm early summer air. Then my eyes shot open as my thoughts returned. "Hanelor! I came in you!"

"Don't worry, my love. All female Paladins must drink the Chuvis Elixir every month, just like the other female soldiers. Imperial Decree." She laughed.

I hadn't thought of that. "That makes sense, actually. You never know what those monsters would do to you if they captured you."

The Chuvis Elixir was named for the Physician who had invented it. When women drank it, they were rendered infertile for an entire moon cycle, and wouldn't menstruate. Imperial Decree made it so that all female soldiers and sailors in the Imperial Army and Navy would drink it once a month in order to avoid pregnancy. That included the Paladins and Rangers who made up the Imperial Special Forces. It could also be bought from any town apothecary in the Empire.

I thought about it some more. Would it be so bad to be a father to Hanelor's child? Our son or daughter would be one quarter Elvish, so might be accepted more than I was when growing up. I'd had a few good friends who didn't care that I was Half-Elven, and more than a few women who had been attracted to my 'exotic' nature, even if only for a night or two. But now there was a beautiful woman who said she loved me, and was laying next to me on the bank of this spring. I looked into her eyes and smiled.

"Hanelor, do you want children someday?" I asked.

She nodded. "Yes, my love, with you. I want to do all we talked about before, though."

"So do I, shirila." I slipped back into High Elvish without realizing it at first. It only happened when I was completely relaxed. My mother had taught me Elvish before I learned Avathian.

"What is 'shirila'? It sounds beautiful, and I'm guessing Elvish?" Hanelor smiled and her eyes twinkled.

"It is, Hanelor. My mother taught me Elvish growing up, and it was all I spoke until I was ten years old and she finally allowed me to learn Imperial Avathian from my father. It literally means 'sacred heart'." I explained.

The Elven children in our treetop village of Elaranan had mostly been cruel to me because of my black hair which clearly marked me as a halfbreed. A few hadn't cared, and only saw a friend.

One of those had been Selora, whom I had courted for a year before her parents made us separate. Her father, the High Prince of the Village, would be damned before he would 'let her be soiled by that mongrel'. Little did he know that his daughter and I had given our virginity to each other during our 19th year. Her long white-blonde hair had fallen around us both that day in the upper reaches of the Hearth Tree, and we had made love long into the afternoon. I imagined she was probably Sealed in Union by now, and most probably had children with her new Lifemate. She had been my first shirila. I had loved her, but lost her to her family's bigotry. I had told Hanelor of her during one of our drinking nights after a battle a few years ago. I still remembered the conversation we'd had.


I passed Hanelor the tankard of beer, and she drank a gulp before handing it back. "So, Jon. Any wife waiting at home?" She asked.

"No. I had a lady until a few years ago before I joined up. Her father disapproved of my Human heritage." I shrugged.

"I'm sorry, Jon. I can't understand how people could be so racist, and judge someone on their skin or ears or hair and not on who they are." Hanelor had set her hand on mine on the table, and the physical contact with her bare hand had shocked and aroused me. I had pulled back automatically.

"I ... I'm sorry, Hanelor. You startled me." I replaced my hand on top of hers, and felt how soft the back of her hand was compared to the callouses I had felt on her palm. She was a warrior like me. We had shared our canteens with each other through battle after battle. We had shed our blood in the same mud.

"You shy from the touch of others. Why?" She asked with real concern.

"I was just caught offguard. It's nothing." I reassured her with a smile as I willed the erection in my pants down.


"What are you thinking of, my love?" Hanelor asked.

"The conversation we had after The Battle of Broken Vale." I replied and smiled. "Neither one of us had enough for a tankard of Beer, so we both pitched in what we had and shared it."

She laughed as the sun slipped past the noon mark. "Do you think they've missed us yet?" She asked with a contented sigh.

"Probably." I shrugged. The war was won. "Should we go back?"

"In a little while. I want to spend a few more moments with the man I love." She kissed me passionately, and I returned her kiss just as ardently.

"Well, aren't you two a sight." The voice of my Commanding Officer said from above us. I looked up at her and smiled at her upside down face from where she was standing behind my head.

"Hey there, Denna. This is exactly what it looks like, and as soon as we get back, go ahead and bring me up on charges, hooah?" I grinned up at her.

Denna just laughed. "Like I would be able to after the stunt you both pulled with killing Vel'shorek! Drive on, Ranger, but get dressed and be back at camp ASAP. We're about to break camp for the march back to the Capital. You have ten minutes." She turned and left.

"That answers that question." Hanelor laughed. "I can't believe you weren't embarrassed!"

"Why would I be? Rangers bathe together all the time. We've seen each other naked before. I prefer my current view, though." I kissed her and we stood to retrieve our clothes and armor.

Once we were dressed in full armor and with weapons belts and harnesses buckled, we walked back to camp hand in hand.

We unclasped our hands as we neared the site and got our gear squared away for the march back. Once our tents were broken down and strapped to our rucksacks, and those rucks then thrown into our supply wagon in celebration of our victory, we marched back hand in hand for the four hour march.

Denna caught up to us. "Denna, I know we've had our differences, but I know you loved Halas. He was a good Ranger." I said.

"Thank you, Jon. I know I haven't been the easiest Commanding Officer to work for." She smiled at us. "I assume you will be resigning your commission with the Paladins, Hanelor?"

"Yes I will, Denna. I've had to fight alongside this man for over five years, and I will be damned already, but I would be double damned if I didn't resign to be with him." Hanelor smiled at our friend.

"What will you both do?" She asked.

"Travel, most likely. Mixed race couples are very frowned upon here in Arethor." I told her. "My parents were proof of that. I was barely tolerated in my mother's village among the Elves."

"It's true. If only we could make the entire Empire see how we Rangers do things." Denna chuckled. Hanelor and I laughed.

"So true, Denna." Hanelor agreed. "Paladins, Rangers, and Battlemages are the only forces in the Imperial Army that aren't still segregated, and all are treated equally."

"I could probably pass for Human if I grew my hair out and let me beard grow in some more." I shrugged. "The longer hair would cover my ears."

"Not by much, Jon. Even though you're only Half-Elven, the only ways I can tell that you aren't full Elf are your hair color and your facial stubble." Denna said and laughed again. Denna is tough. She grieved for Halas quickly, and would find a new lover soon. "But then again, there are no Humans or Elves here. We're just Rangers. Hooah?"

"Hooah, Denna." I replied and we shared a grin of victory.

We marched into the Capital of Arethias Castle. The walled city was large, and we formed up in our units for the rest of the march through town. We were still dressed in our combat worn armor and carrying our bows at the ready after unsheathing and extending them. We carried them in our left hands as we marched. When we reached the Palace itself, which looked more like a Fortress than anything else, we marched through its gates as well and to our new temporary quarters. We were now quartered in individual rooms with spacious interiors, soft beds, which I hadn't seen in years, and food waiting for us with Beer.

"The Gods are good to us, Hanelor." I grabbed two tankards and tapped the Keg they had left in my room. I poured one for Hanelor and one for me. We sat and got comfortable in the chairs. Our rucks were right next to each other and we would be called when the awards ceremony and victory celebration in the morning. She had stripped down to just her tunic and trousers, and started polishing her armor between swigs of beer.

"Yes they are. I think we should be plastered by the time the celebrations start. That way we'll have a head start on them!" Hanelor laughed, and I clanked mugs with her.

"I agree. Here's to drinking all through the night!" I raised my tankard, and she clanked it with hers. We drank.

I grabbed my weapons and started cleaning them. I varnished my bow and restrung it before cleaning and polishing my daggers. These weapons would remain mine, even after I left the Rangers. I then got my Dress Black Uniform from my rucksack and laid it out for in the morning. My boots would need polishing too, but I took another gulp of beer first.

"The Gods created Beer so that Rangers would have a way to relax after a battle." I grinned, more than a little buzzed.

"And Paladins, too!" Hanelor agreed. "Shit! The Empress is going to present us our medals in the morning, isn't she?"

"Probably. Why?" I asked.

"I hate her. She gave in when father sent me to the Monastery when I was eight. He never liked me for some odd reason. Probably the fact that I was born without a cock. But whatever. She went along with it. Fuck her. She might be my mother, but she's not my fucking family!" Hanelor finally stopped her tirade and pouted.

I'm not sure what startled me more. That she was a dirty mouthed drunk when she was angry, or that she was the daughter of the Empress.

"Princess?" I asked, mouth open.

"Oh shit, I'm sorry, Jon. I never told you that." She stopped polishing her breastplate and looked at me with imploring eyes. "Jalin knows, and that's about it."

I sheathed my left dagger and set it aside once it was clean and polished. "Hanelor, slow down on the Beer." I said. "If you leave the Paladins, won't your mother care?"

"Why should she? Even after father died, she didn't even bother to send word. I found out the same way everyone else did!" Hanelor was furious, and I couldn't blame her.

"When we stand side by side in the morning, hung over and ready to kill anyone who looks at us funny, we should both glare through her like she isn't even there." I suggested. Yes, I was a bit drunk, myself.

Hanelor laughed at that. "Yes! Or maybe refuse to salute!" We laughed even harder.

"Or tell her to go fuck herself?" I suggested again, and Hanelor nearly fell off of her chair. She did drop her breastplate with a clang.

"Or maybe I'll stick out my tongue at her and you can moon her!" Hanelor managed between fits of laughter. I was laughing so hard I had tears streaming down my face.

We heard the knock at the same time. "Come in, we're drunk!" We said in unison and laughed again as we clanked tankards and drank as the door opened. We looked as an older version of Hanelor came in dressed in her gleaming golden armor.

"Oh, look. It's the bitch herself!" Hanelor stood and smirked with her arms folded. "Why don't we just skip the awards shit in the morning, mother. Just let us get the fuck out of here and we can resign quietly."

"Hanelorina, stop it! Mother or not, I am still your Empress." I raised my eyebrows at that. Her voice was the same velvet covered steel as Hanelor's.

"What the fuck did you expect, mother? After the last twenty years and not a fucking word from you, even when the REASON I was sent to the Monastery in the first place died! What do you want from me? Respect that I don't feel? Fuck you!" Hanelor shouted with real rage behind her eyes as the tears of pain and anger fell down her cheeks.

Empress Raelina looked at me. I shook my head. "No, ma'am. Don't look at me. I'm on her side on this. That was a shady bullshit move on yours and the Emperor's part back when she was just a little girl. It was fucked up, and I'm not going to apologize for my language. I don't even give a fuck if you execute me before even pinning my medal on."

She looked back at Hanelor, who had collapsed back into her chair and was crying softly into her hands. I reached over and put my hand on her shoulder, and she covered it with her own. She squeezed my hand in thanks.

"I'm sorry, Hanelorina," she said to her daughter. "Please forgive me."

That set Hanelor off again. "NO, MOTHER! I WILL NOT FORGIVE YOU! YOU AND THAT SHITSTAIN EXCUSE FOR A FATHER STOLE MY CHILDHOOD FROM ME! I NEVER HAD A CHANCE AT A NORMAL LIFE THANKS TO YOU! I'm leaving now. I don't care about your fucking medals or propriety." She wound down as she ended her righteous tirade.

"Stand down, shirila. Please. At least hear her out?" I asked as gently as possible as I moved in front of her and held her close. "Please, for me?"

"Fine, but only for you, Jon." She answered.

I pulled back and moved to her side. I nodded to the Empress.

"Hanelorina, please sit down and let me explain some things?" She asked and gestured to the chairs. There were four of them, but we had only been occupying the ones with a clear view of the door. where our backs wouldn't be turned to it.

Hanelor and I both retook our seats as the Empress sat in the third chair. She turned to her guard. "Leave us."

The guard bowed and left, closing the door behind him. Empress Raelina la Cionan turned back to us. "Hanelorina, please forgive me for what I did back then. I let your father take you away from me and send you to become a warrior. It was not what I wanted, but I was afraid of what he might have done if I had refused."

Hanelor was suddenly attentive, and showed no more trace of anger for her mother. "What were you afraid of, mother?"

"I was afraid that he would harm you, Hannie. He wanted another son, but when you came along, he saw you as a slap in the face." Raelina told us.

I had to interject. "So, why would he feel that way? You have two sons already. Why would Hanelor be a threat to him?"

"Because a prophecy foretold that a woman would rule the Empire after his death. He assumed that to mean Hannie, but in reality it meant me." She clarified.

"Mother, you haven't called me Hannie since I was five." Hanelor said, tears in her eyes.

"I know, Hannie. I'm so sorry for what happened. I was afraid for your life, and your father thought that he would be safe if you became a Paladin, who would be in no position to rule the Empire. It was my idea to send you for your own safety." Raelina looked at Hanelor with eyes begging for forgiveness. "At least with Harsk's Paladins, you had more of a chance than you did with your father biding his time until I wouldn't be able to protect you."

Hanelor bowed her head and closed her eyes. She took a deep shuddering breath. She looked her mother in the eyes. "I understand, mother. I forgive you. Please forgive my earlier outburst?"

Raelina smiled. "There is nothing to forgive, and I also offer apologies for not informing you of your father's death. I didn't know how you would react."

"Ma'am?" I asked, getting the Empress's attention. "I would also like to apologize for my behavior earlier. I love Hanelor, and would do anything to protect her."

"You have fought side by side through a hundred battles or more. It's only natural to protect her here as well. My daughter has a loyal friend in you, Ranger." Raelina smiled a motherly smile at me.

"Mother, you don't understand. When he said he loves me, he loves me as a man loves a woman. Not just as a friend. I feel the same for him, and I will be resigning my Commission in the Paladins of Harsk tomorrow after the ceremony. Paladin Jalin has already agreed to hear my Final Confession and take my Resignation of Commission." Hanelor took my hand and our fingers intertwined.

Raelina's eyes widened at that news. "Ranger Hawke, is this true?"

"Yes, ma'am. I love Hanelor, and I have since before I found out she was your daughter." I admitted. "I make no apology for that."

"Nor should you, Ranger." Raelina smiled warmly and looked at her daughter. "Hannie, I wish you both the best, and I pray you find the love together that I never could with your father."

"We have already, mother. Thank you." Hanelor rose and embraced her mother for the first time in twenty years.

Raelina gently broke the hug and stepped back. "I wish you both goodnight, and the ceremony begins at high noon tomorrow. But for tonight, I will leave you to your preparations." She nodded to each of us and left, closing the door behind her.

Hanelor crossed to the door and threw the bolt. She then ran to me and into my waiting arms. Her body shuddered as she cried in relief while I held her close.

I took her hand and led her to the bed. We undressed slowly and I kissed her lovingly. "I need you tonight, Hanelor. I love you." I wanted her more now than earlier that day.

"I need you too, Jon. I love you so much." She moved onto the bed and I moved with her.

Once again I was kissing the woman I love deeply and passionately. Our moans and sighs escaping our lips as I moved on top of her. I kissed her neck and down across her throat, licking little circles on her skin as I went. I looked up into her eyes. "I am going to make love to you with my tongue, shirila."

She shuddered at that and smiled at me lovingly. "Yes, my love. I want you to!"

I smiled back at her and continued licking and kissing her breasts, spending a lot of time sucking her hard nipples and licking around them. She gasped as my tongue and lips brought her beautiful breasts more pleasure than she had ever experienced before. I licked down across her tight stomach and down to where her thighs met. She spread her legs and I inhaled the scent of her arousal. As I lowered my face further, I could see how wet she was already, and I spread her petals open with my fingers to taste her. My tongue licked slowly up between her lips, and her flavor was a perfect blend of sweetness with just a hint of salt. She gasped as my tongue touched her clit, and moaned loudly as I sucked it between my lips while flicking it rapidly with my tongue.

She cried out wordlessly and her fingers entwined themselves in my short hair as best they could. I could taste her wetness growing as I licked and sucked her sweet pussy, and I stiffened my tongue and thrust it into her opening. I twisted and swirled my tongue inside her, licking all around inside her pussy as she writhed and bucked her hips.

"Oh Gods, Jon! I'm going to come!" She shouted when I opened my mouth and kissed her hot pussy as I would her mouth. My tongue darted into her as I moved my lips over her petals and clit. She screamed in passion, her juices filling my mouth and sliding down my throat as I swallowed. As she started to come down from her peak, I kept licking and sucking her. I loved how wet she was and how I was able to bring her so much pleasure. Her pussy was like tasting the ambrosia of the Twin Goddesses. Janeltha and Jalensa, the Goddesses of Lust and Love had both blessed Hanelor, and I was the one to reap their rewards.

I lifted my face from her sex and moved up over her body. "How was that, Hanelor?" I asked with a smile.

It took her a moment to catch her breath. "That was the most wonderful thing I have ever felt, my love! I need you in me now, Jon. Give it to me hard!"

As if to lay claim to me, she reached down and grabbed me, pulling me to her pussy as her legs slipped up and around my ass. Once she had the head at her entrance, she pulled with her feet and I thrust into her hard. "As you command, Lady Paladin." I whispered to her before withdrawing and thrusting back in hard. I moved my hips quickly in and out, giving my lady what she wanted now.

Her hands went to my back, pulling me down her mouth. She kissed me with a hungry passion, her tongue duelling with mine for supremacy. I kept thrusting hard and fast, going as deep as possible into her with every inward stroke of my hips. She felt wonderful around me, hot, tight, and wetter than I had ever felt before. We broke the kiss and stared deep into each other's eyes as we fucked. We weren't making love now. This was an animal urge that needed to be sated in both of us. Her hips thrusted against mine as I gave her the hard fucking we both wanted and needed.

She snarled low and lustily in her throat and bit my lip when she started screaming my name. I felt her convulsing under me and around me when her orgasm thundered through her. Her inner walls gripped me tight, and the sweet convulsions of her pussy were too much for me. I groaned and shouted as I erupted into her like a volcano, firing molten cum deep inside her pussy. There were no words that could be said. Our bodies spoke for us in our intimate moments as we came down from the pinnacle together.

Where the hellcat had been below me, now there was the woman with whom I had fallen in love. Our kisses were now tender and loving, where before we had been hungry and passionate. Our lust and love both sated for the moment, I collapsed to the side of her, and she snuggled up to me. Her arm and leg went possessively over me, and I could feel our cum drip warmly onto my thigh from her pussy.

"By the Gods, Jon!" Hanelor exclaimed breathlessly. Her arm across my chest was shaking slightly in the aftermath of our coupling.

"I was about to say the same for you, Hanelor." I laughed softly as my body twitched in remembered ecstasy. My legs were shaking.

We laid there talking for a while after we had finished. "When I resign after the awards ceremony tomorrow, I will be keeping the Oath of Justice, Jon. Will you keep it with me?"

"Yes, my shirila." I smiled at her. I knew what she meant. The Paladin's Oath to Defend and Avenge. To defend the righteous against evil, or if she should not arrive in time, to avenge them and visit the holy fire of Justice upon those who had killed them.

"Then in our travels, we will help those we can, and avenge those we cannot." Hanelor said and kissed me. Her tall body, nearly as tall as my own, lay molded to mine under the comforter.

"Definitely, Hanelor. I might be resigning my commission as a Ranger, but I will not compromise the ideals that I have come to love, either." I told her. We held each other in silence as sleep took us that night.

We awoke the next morning to birds singing outside our window. The sun was rising, the light streaming into our window. I rose as normal and dropped to the stone floor in the front leaning rest position. Hanelor was still sleeping as I pushed out one hundred push-ups. I rose again, bringing my feet forward and standing to recover.

I looked at her. She was peaceful in sleep. I sat crosslegged and recited the Creed of the Ranger quietly as to not awaken her.

"R: Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of the Rangers.

A: Acknowledging the fact that a Ranger is a more elite soldier who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land or by sea, I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move further, faster and fight harder than any other soldier.

N: Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight, and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be, one-hundred-percent and then some.

G: Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow.

E: Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.

R: Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.

Rangers Lead The Way."

I finished and raised my head to see Hanelor looking at me in wonder. "Did the Battlemaster teach that when he came here centuries ago?" She asked.

"He did. He said it was the Creed of the Rangers on his world. He might be dead, but his teachings live on." I explained. "Every Ranger is taught to be STRAC, which stands for Strong, Tough, & Ready Around the Clock."

"I have seen you fight around the clock, my love. Remember?" She smiled and leaned down to kiss me.

I kissed her lips tenderly. "I remember fighting from sunrise to sundown and through the night at the Battle of Heretic Mountain. We lost a lot of good men and women that day, Hanelor. You were always at my side, though."

It had been a horrific battle. Fighting at the base of the mountain and up the sloping trails to its peak. The Ogres holding the mountain had made us bleed for every inch of ground we won that day. The Rangers and Paladins had finally fought our way up to the top after a brutal day and night of unrelenting combat. When the last Ogre fell, we were dead on our feet. I could barely draw my bow, and Hanelor could barely lift her sword. None of our surviving unit could do much but sit down, drink our canteens dry. We found the Ogres' water barrels and drank those dry as well. It had been the toughest battle of the war.

"That was when we found the perfect harmony in combat, Jon. Our actions were as if we had the same mind." Hanelor said.

We had truly bonded during that fight. We had sat down together leaning against the Ogres' command tent, and had passed out side by side. We had awakened to find her arms around my chest and her head on my shoulder, still with her helm on. I had looked up at Denna and Jalin standing there looking at us, and I had laughed at the expressions on their faces. Hanelor had woken up and immediately withdrew from me, standing and straightening her armor and weapons. We had been unconscious for nearly twelve hours, completely exhausted. After that battle was when we would flirt lightly with each other, mostly for stress relief before or after a battle.

"I think we should probably get dressed, Hanelor." I smiled ruefully and got to my feet. I moved to my ruck and pulled out fresh socks, underwear, and my dress boots. Hanelor did the same with her Paladin's Dress Tunic and Trousers. The dark gray with silver trim looked good on her. I dressed in the black with gold trim of my Dress Blacks. The half-moon shaped patch with the word Ranger sewn on the left shoulder of my tunic. I retrieved my medals from the bottom pocket of my ruck, and put them on in the correct order. I looked in the full length mirror to make sure I was good to go, and Hanelor came up beside me in her uniform.

"You look good, my love." She said as she looked at us standing side by side. She was only two inches shorter than me.

"You look better, shirila." I smiled at her. Her tunic fit her well, accentuating her breasts, hips, and shoulders.

"Flattery will get you everywhere, Ranger." She slipped her arms up around my neck and kissed me tenderly. I returned her kiss just as lovingly, my arms going around her waist.

We heard a knock on the door and I went to answer it. I threw the bolt back and opened the door.

Denna and Jalin were standing there smiling knowingly when they saw us in our dress uniforms. They were dressed as we were, but with more medals in Jalin's case. Denna and I had the same amount of medals on our chests.

"Are you two lovebirds ready?" Denna asked.

"STRAC, Captain." I said in response. We weren't in the field anymore, so Rank was back in effect.

"Good job, Sergeant. Now get out here and let's go get your medals and resignations out of the way." She smiled and broke garrison protocol as well as several other regulations by hugging me. "Jon, I may not get another chance to say this. All joking aside, I am glad you found someone special, and Hanelor is a good woman and a hell of a soldier."

"Thanks, Denna." Hanelor said with a smile.

"She's right, son," said Jalin. "While I have no problem with your relationship, and will be more than happy to hear her final confession and accept her resignation, there are some Paladins who won't see it like we do."

"What do you mean, First Marshal?" Hanelor asked.

"Cut the 'First Marshal' stuff, Hanelor. We've been friends for too long." Jalin laughed. He held the highest rank in the Paladins of Harsk simply because of his experience as a battle commander. "But in answer to your question, you shouldn't expect much help from any Paladins of Harsk you meet in your travels. In fact, some may even challenge you."

"But why, Jalin? I am leaving the Order of my own accord! I'm not being forced out!" Hanelor was shocked.

"Hanelor, what you are doing is not unheard of, but it is also very frowned upon by some. I will never judge you, though." He smiled, and Hanelor nodded.

"Then if it happens, it happens. We will be careful." She replied and hugged our old friend.

"Thanks for the warning, Jalin." I said as I shook his hand. "Remind me to buy a few dozen bundles of arrows before we leave."

"Buy a few dozen bundles of arrows before you leave," he replied in a completely deadpan voice.

I smirked wryly. "Thanks, Brother."

I walked back to our table and fastened my equipment belt on over my tunic, then loaded my quiver with fifty arrows before strapping it over my shoulders and to my belt. I attached my sheaths to my thighs and up to my belt as well, and I was ready. My leather belt and straps were polished to a shine, as were my boots. If my blades should be called upon for inspection, the grips were polished as were the blades. I removed my bow from the holster on the back of my belt and hit the catch to extend it. The slipknot in the bowstring unravelled it as it tightened. Smooth as silk. I collapsed it again and retied the knot before replacing it in its holster.

I walked back to where my love and our friends were waiting. "Ready."

We marched side by side down the hallway and out into the courtyard, where we were met with thunderous applause. Our surviving unit members were in the front row of the audience, cheering us on. Per protocol, we kept our faces neutral as we climbed the steps of the stage and marched to our spot behind the Empress where she stood behind her podium.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," Empress Raelina said in a clear commanding voice, "We are here to honor two of our number who, working together, did what was once thought impossible. The Frost Giant commander, Vel'shorek led a final charge over the Bridge at Stone's Throw, and was slain by Master Sergeant Jonathan Hawke and Storm Justice Hanelor of Harsk." She used Hanelor's rank and name as a Paladin. "For their gallantry above and beyond the call of duty, it is my great pleasure to bestow upon them the Order of Imperial Light."

I was caught offguard, but didn't let it show on my face. Besides a slight gasp from Hanelor, I knew she had kept her face neutral as well. The Order of Imperial Light was Arethor's highest honor.

Empress Raelina turned to an aide who presented her with the first box containing the medal which would be hung around our necks. She opened the box as she stepped in front of me. "Sergeant Hawke, The Empire thanks you for your service, as do I." She smiled and removed the medal and lifted it. I bowed my head as she slipped it on and set it dead center in my chest. The eight pointed starburst on the medal was shined to a brilliant gold.

"Thank you, ma'am." I saluted crisply, and she returned my salute.

She turned and moved three steps to my right and turned to stand in front of Hanelor. She took the medal for her from the box. "Storm Justice Hanelor, the Empire thanks you for your service, as do I." Hanelor leaned forward as her mother placed the medal's ribbon around her neck.

Something drew my attention to the parapet over the courtyard. A flash of light off an arrowhead that an archer was aiming directly at the Empress! I drew my bow from behind my back and extended it as I drew an arrow from my quiver. I nocked, drew, and shot within the space of a second, and my arrow flew straight into the assassin's left eye. He leaned back before he fell forward to drape over the wall, and his arrow shot harmlessly over our heads to clatter on the roof behind us. "Hanelor, get the Empress to safety!" I shouted as I loosed my arrow. "Lock this place down!" I shouted to Jalin.

Hanelor grabbed her mother and shielded her as she ushered our Empress inside the throne room as I continued to scan the walls with an arrow nocked and drawn. Jalin ordered our unit to lock everything down and nobody gets in or out until we give the all clear. I glanced at Denna who was also scanning her field of fire, and other Rangers who had taken up defensive fields of fire all over the walls with some watching the crowd.

"Someone get up there and search the body!" I shouted and pointed to where the archer was slumped over the wall.

"I should be giving the orders here, Ranger," Denna chuckled. "I'll check the body, though."

"Sorry about that, Captain." I said with a smile.

She was sprinting for the door with the stairs up to the parapet, and Jalin called for his Paladins to fall back to the throne room to protect the Empress.

"Rangers, report!" I shouted to my squad. They all reported all clear, so I finally let the tension out of my bowstring and slipped the arrow back into the quiver on my back.

Denna was up top and searching the body as the Palace Guard sent a detachment to help her. Once she had searched the assassin and taken all she could, she ordered the guards to take care of the body. She then came back down to ground level, where I met her at the door.

"Anything, ma'am?" I asked, and she handed me a folded sheet of paper. I took it as we walked towards the throne room together and read it.

'The Empress must die today. You must be the Hand of the Gods in this, as no one else can succeed.

signed, G.'

"Who the fuck is G?" I asked.

"I don't know, but whoever he or she is, we need to tell the Empress." Denna was shaking her head with a concerned look on her face.

"Agreed," I replied as we moved into the throne room where Raelina was being protected by the Paladins, and was flanked by her sons Lann and Gennol.

We approached the Empress. "Your Majesty, Captain la Cyr found this on the corpse of the would-be-assassin. Does it mean anything to you?" I handed Raelina the paper, which she read.

Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open as she looked at her eldest son. "Gennol! How could you?" She stood and drew her sword.

I nocked and drew down on him as well. "G for Gennol?" I asked. The Empress nodded.

"I recognized his handwriting, Ranger. Guards! Disarm my oldest son and escort him to the dungeon." She said.

Gennol seemed to come out of his shock. "What? You cannot be serious! I am innocent!"

"Shut up!" Raelina shouted and smacked him. "Did you really think I wouldn't recognize your handwriting?"

I caught her younger son out the corner of my eye as he quickly hid a smile. I shifted my aim to him. "Your Majesty, I believe Gennol."

The Empress looked at me as if I had grown a second head, then followed my aim to the startled and exceedingly guilty looking Lann.

"Lann? What are you talking about? Lann has always been a good boy!" Raelina said to me.

"No he hasn't, mother!" Hanelor said in defense of her eldest brother. "Lann was the one who constantly teased me when I was a child, before I got sent to the Monastery. He would tell me how father was going to kill me one day, then make him Emperor over Gennol."

Lann turned crimson. "You fucking SLUT! Hanelor, you're nothing but trash! Always have been, always will be!" His words were laced with venom for his sister. "Gennol was the perfect patsy! I would have killed our dear mother and framed my beloved brother all at once, and I WOULD HAVE BEEN EMPEROR AS OUR FATHER PROMISED!" He was shouting his guilt for all to hear by the end of his rant.

I still had Lann trained in my sight. "Orders, ma'am?" I asked the Empress.

"With admittance of his crime not under duress, the crime and punishment are clear." She took a shuddering breath and looked at me. "Loose, Ranger," she said quietly and turned away as I shot Lann la Cionan through his eye and into his brain.

As soon as his body fell, I looked at our Empress. She was crying silent tears as Hanelor and Gennol were holding her in a family hug.

Lann's widow, Princess Veslara was dumbstruck, and looked at me as if I was a monster. I looked steadily back at her. "Princess, I acted on the Imperial Decree of your Empress. Your deceased husband plotted Regicide and the framing of his own brother for the crime. Either you were complicit in this, or you were unaware. Either way, your fate is now in the hands of our Empress."

She looked from me to her husband's body where my arrow stuck straight up from where it had entered his eyesocket.

Hearing me, the Empress turned to her former daughter-in-law. "Veslara, you will be detained until a Truth Mage from the Guild can be brought in to verify whether or not you were complicit in my son's plot. You will be confined to your suite until such time as either your innocence or your guilt should be determined." She kept herself together very well, all things considered. She then turned to her guardsmen. "Guards, escort the Princess to her suite and post a guard outside her door. She will be treated with all courtesy and privilege due her rank until such time as her guilt, if there is any, is determined."

"Yes, Your Majesty," a guard said and bowed before taking Veslara by her arm and escorting her to the staircase on the other end of the throne room.

She then turned to me. "Ranger, I owe you more than my life. I owe you the life of the one worthy son I have. I nearly made a horrible mistake today."

"No, ma'am. We all nearly made that mistake. If not for Lann giving himself away, he would have gotten away with it." I said to her.

"As it may be, but you and Hanelorina are welcome to stay here whenever you wish." Empress Raelina turned to her daughter as Hanelor stepped to my side and took my hand. "Hanelorina, I am reinstating you as a Princess of the Empire."

"Don't you dare, mother!" Hanelor had a look of horror on her face. "I will NOT be part of Court politics or scandal! Gods, my life is scandalous enough without all that!" She blushed when all Rangers, guards, and Paladins turned to look at her, and I realized that none of them knew her true lineage. The only ones who knew were Denna and Jalin. Denna showed no surprise, and Jalin just smiled and shook his head.

Raelina laughed. "Very well, Hanelor," she said. "But if you change your mind, the offer will always be open."

"Thanks, mother. Now, I believe I have a resignation to make." Hanelor kissed me quickly, then ran to Jalin and grabbed him to go see to her resignation.

I looked around at all the faces staring at me now. "What? I didn't know until last night."

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