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“This war must end!” Enki demanded as he banged his fist on the round wooden table. Four Kings of the fairies stood around this table, and around then were many of their advisers, soldiers, and followers. Enik was King of the Earth Clans he as well as fellow ruler Aither, King of the Air Clans were both glaring at Huojin and Nernus.

“Elemental fae have been warring for too long,” Aither said in his calm tone. Gray eyes, large and pleading as he struggled to reason with his fellows. “Earth and Air have lived peacefully for many generations. We have lived in harmony with both of your clans. Why can’t you, Huojin, King of the Fire Clans and you Nernus of the Water Clans, get along. You two are the only ones who insist on war.” He clasped his hands in front of his thin body.

Huojin was a young King. He stood taller than the rest with broad shoulders, his skin tan and his body lean. His hair was so red it looked nearly black and it was severely pulled into war braids while the rest of it hung pin straight down his back. His face was long and narrow with sharp features and blazing eyes. His body was slightly bulky from muscles and armor. A warrior's body. He looked silently from the Air King to the Earth King and then glanced at his foe, as his hand rested on the hilt of a large sword that hung at his hip.

Nernus was older than Huojin, but just as strong. His shorter body was taught with muscles; his hair was as pale as his skin and was a shaggy mane on the top of his head. A thick, yet neatly trimmed white beard covered most of his facial features. Aqua blue eyes pierced past bushy eyebrows. He too looked at his foe from the other side of the small round table. He looked past the King to his kin behind him and was aware of his own kin at his back. How long had they fought the hot-headed Fires? How many had died because of useless squabbles? “I for one am ready for peace. I do not want more deaths of my kin on my shoulders.” He watched Huojin carefully.

Historically, the Fire Clan refused treaty, not wanting to give into the demands of the Water Clans. But Huojin was thoughtful. Though his people were warriors and eager for battle, he didn’t want more enemies than he needed. It was hard enough keeping the Drow at bay in the mountains; he didn’t need to watch his back from the rivers and sea. “I would rather have my battles with the Drow, than the Water Clan.” He said finally. Aither and Enki both gave a sigh of relief. “But how will I be sure you will keep your peace?” The Fire King immediately challenged.

Nernus gave a huff. “I was about to inquire the same thing of you.”

“I propose a marriage between the two clans,” Enki suggested quickly as the two Kings were already giving each other confrontational looks. The Earth King was as tall as the Air King was short. Mahogany and golden hair hung lose to curl around his shoulders. At his brow was a circle of gold with branches of deer antlers jutting up from the sides. Leaf green eyes glanced hopefully at his fellow patriarchs.

“Capital idea!” Aither added turning quickly to the Fire King. “Have you a high relative fit for marriage? A wedding between the clans would calm the subjects. You would be kin.”

Houjin didn’t like the idea of being kin with the likes of Waters. But it was an idea that had worked countless times in the past. In fact, it was how the Earth and Fire clans became so close, far before his time. “I have a nephew.” The ruler offered slowly, still in thought. “My brother’s son. He is a man of seventeen and a soldier in the mountains fighting the Drow at this exact moment. He is a clever and strong young man with sword skills that could put me to shame.

Eniki knew of who Houjin spoke of. “Kenshin? I didn’t know he was already part of your ranks against the Drow.”

Houjin nodded. “Has been for a little over a year now. Thankfully the Drow seem content at the moment to keep to their territory, but he has seen many battles. He is a skilled assassin.”
The three other kings were impressed. Eniki turned to the Water King. “Nernus, have you a relative of high rank to marry to Houjin’s nephew?”

Nernus scrambled through the family tree in his mind. He didn’t have many female relatives who were not already married. Not any of high enough rank to be worthy of Houjin’s warrior. “I have…” he started slowly, he wasn’t going to be the one to break the treaty the one time Houjin was willing to take part in. “I have a cousin…his daughter.”

“Your cousin’s daughter!” Aither interrupted, throwing his hands in the air. “Perfect match.” He was rushing to get the treaty signed before anyone could change their minds, but Houjin was already sweeping his hands in the air in front of him.

“Ho, now…who is this cousin, who is his daughter? I want to know who you think is worthy of Kenshin.”

“Glendower is my cousin, he is ruler of Aiga Keep. He’s getting in his advanced years and I believe he will pass into the next life shortly. Glendower only has one child so if your nephew weds his daughter, he will become Lord over the Keep.” It was the only idea Nernus could think of to make the offer, one Houjin wouldn’t refuse; already he could see the gleam in the Fire King’s red eyes.

He knew of Aiga Keep well. Many years he had tried to worm his way into that Water Fae infested cavern to get at the pure, cold water that sprung up from its center. “The water in that keep is the purest water in all the country.”

Nernus nodded. “So it has been stated. It is at the moment used for medical and healing purposes.”

“I would build a grand forge in the Keep where the water to quench my weapons would be pure and grant them the magic of not only fire and metal, but of water.” Plans were already coming together in his mind.

The Water King frowned and glanced at the two other rulers who watched the transaction, both hardly daring to breathe. “Building a forage in the keep would bring Fire Fae into Aiga.”

“Houjin crossed his arms. “Obviously.” Where was he getting at?

“Aiga keep will belong to the Fire as well as Water. A forage shall be built for your weapons of war, but you must promise that the forage and its inhabitants will respect the Keep and all who live there. They will not pollute Aiga and treat the people as their own Kin. Those pure waters are used for healing.”

That wasn’t hard to Houjin to agree to. He demanded his subjects be well behaved towards each other and their allies. Once the Waters become Kin, that law will include them as well and he would also especially demand the Keep to stay clean for fear of polluting the pure spring water. He nodded. “Anything else?”

Now Nernus was nervous. “Yes…Kaoru…the girl….well she is but a girl, of seven.”

Around them, Fae from all elements gasped and muttered amongst themselves. A child bride? Would Houjin agree to it?

The Fire King was surprised. But the promise of the pure water that he had been trying to get was too much of a temptation for him to change his mind. Such marriages were not so uncommon. His nephew was hardly ten years older. “It matters not.” He said with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Deal then?” Enki said in a breathless whisper. His heart had nearly stopped when Nernus announced the bride was but a child, but Houjin knew what he wanted, and he wanted that Keep.

“Deal.” Nernus said first, thrusting his hand out to the center of the table.

Houjin took one extra long moment to think about it and he too stuck his hand out and clasped the offered hand.

Fire and Water touched and thin curls of steam rose up from their fingers. Enki and Aither clasped their hands with them. The Four Great Kings, together once again after more than a millennia apart. Enki shouted with his rumbling voice. “With this union, Fire, Water, Earth and Air will be Kin once more!”

A thunderous roar rose up from the subjects around them.

… . . …

~~One Week Later~~

Kenshin hardly breathed as he slowly inched over the branch that hung over the Drow camp. The tree was just out of the ring of dancing light of the campfire. The sharp-eyed Drow would see him if he was careless. Around the camp, others were in the same position. Assassins.

More often than not, Fae from the Air Clans would be assassins. They had the ability to move a swift as the wind and just as silent and invisible. They were small and light. But Kenshin proved to be just as skilled, and as a Fire…possessed the strength needed for such jobs. They joked that there must be Air blood in him. Kenshin never knew much about his mother, his father hardly spoke of her. So he never really liked that joke even though it had been proven that he had full Fire bloodlines.

There it was, a soft call in the night, hardly a whisper of a frog croak. Kenshin launched himself from the tree and landed behind the nearest Drow. He was a young warrior, by the looks of the marking on his dark skin. But Kenshin didn’t take the time to study. His sword was free of its sheath and he caught the male across the chest. The sword sliced through bone with hardly a change in resistance. Kenshin quickly took a step back and with a flick of his arm, sent the blade across the neck of his enemy with lightning speed. The nearly decapitated body of the dark creature fell to the ground.

Aware of the attack, other Drow jumped into the battles. Kenshin took only a moment to flash his yellow eyes across the camp to see that all his fellow assassins were still on their feet. He then pivoted on the ball of one foot, bringing his sword at hip level and caught a Drow that had run up behind him. Kenshin grunted as his sword met too much resistance with so much bone and organs in the way. He put his free hand on the hilt below his other hand and forced the blade across the body. From hip to shoulder the Drow was splayed open and blood sprayed.

Red rain fell from all directions as the assassins quickly and silently eliminated every Drow in the small camp.

… . . …

“How did it go?” Hiko asked when his son walked into the tent. As always Kenshin was covered in blood, it stuck to his hair and it made his dark tunic stiff and glued to his skin. His face was unreadable, but his eyes were not. They flashed, like the flickering of firelight.

“All were killed.” He said simply as he slowly peeled the tacky tunic from his shoulders.

“Hunters?”

“They were scouts.” Kenshin sat on the small stool by a large bucket of water Hiko had ready for him. But instead of washing, Kenshin pulled his sword out and started the meticulous task of cleaning it.

Hiko could only shake his head. He was the one who had taught him the importance of sword upkeep. “So many scouts?” He took a long drink from the earthenware jug on the small table beside him. “It’s fortunate that we discovered them.”

“Yes.” Was all the teenager said.

“Wouldn't it have been prudent to take one as a prisoner so that we could get information from him?”

Kenshin shrugged. “I would think so. But the Drow do not let themselves be captured alive. If they do not die in battle they take their own lives to avoid that from happening.”

“Of course.” He knew that. Hiko would have been content to leave it at that. It would be better to pump one of the other assassins for information. Yet the master had more pressing concerns. “Your Uncle writes us.” He stated, looking down at the large, decorated scroll holder that sat on the table beside his jug.

Kenshin paused in the dis-assembly of his weapon. “The King?”

“The very one.” Hiko stated. He didn’t envy his brother for being king; in fact, he was happy with his life out on the front lines. The responsibilities of being king were not for him.

When he gave no more information Kenshin pressed. “What does he have to say?”

Hiko gave a soft sigh. “Treaty had been signed by the four kings. Water is now kin.”

Kenshin took a moment to think. He set his cleaned sword to the side and looked down at his reflection in the water. “I’m surprised Houjin would agree to that.” He dunked his head into the water and kept it there for a few moments. Water…always moving, always changing. It was hard and unmovable, and also flowing a yielding to the shape of it's container. Much like the Fae, Water flexed. It was unpredictable, untrustworthy.

“He had a good enough reason to.” Hiko stated, taking another drink.

Water surged as Kenshin pulled his head back up. Tainted, pink water ran from his bloody hair to his face and down his bare chest and he worked to free more of the Drow blood from his body. “And what could be so important that Houjin would lower himself to sign a peace treaty with the wet clans?”

“Seems the Water King had agreed to hand over Aiga Keep. You know that place?”

“I’ve heard of it.”

“Seems important to Houjin that the Fire Clan has control of this place….He’s sent me word that he is going to have you marry the child-daughter of the Lord there, you will inherit the Keep once the Wet Fae dies, which I hear may be soon.”

Kenshin blinked. “He what?”

… . . …

“Are you sure you want to stay at the Academy?”

Twelve-year-old Megumi looked up at her adoptive mother. The woman was well into middle age, a widow, her husband died years ago, leaving the woman childless and lonely. Her skin was tan and dark from sun exposure, her hair curled tightly and was a mahogany red-brown, her eyes...golden. She looked nothing like Megumi. No one looked like Megumi, she was the stranger.

“I want to be serious about learning the healing arts, mother,” Megumi said, pulling at her vermillion student robes. She glanced up at her mother.

The woman was chewing on her lip, obviously worried. “But Megumi dear, so many Fires around.”

Megumi swallowed and nodded. She knew her mother worried….she was a Fire herself. She knew….Megumi was just a small child when she wandered into the borders of Coruirn. It was a rather neutral city near the Nether Expanse. A large swath of land owned by no Elemental Kingdom. But that was hardly something the girl had worried about. Guards in an outpost noticed her and rode out to find to their surprise a child of only a handful of years. And even greater surprise was that she was a Water Fae. She was in a torn pale blue nightdress, dirty, and bleeding shockingly from wounds on her head. Blood had flowed and dried down her face and neck to stain the front of her nightdress. Her feet were also bleeding from crossing miles of hard ground barefoot.

Suspicious, they almost chased her away but decided to let their General know. She didn't talk but looked happy to see them, which caused the hearts of the Fires to ache in the thought of leaving her to her fate. They were enemies, yes, but she was such a small child, hungry and hurt. The Fires could not bring themselves to be savages. They were not the Drow.

Their General agreed and took the child into the city straight to the Silver Oak academy where the best healers studies. A lengthy exam showed that the wounds on her head were only superficial and not dangerous, but it was obvious that she had suffered a blow to the skull. The Master healer placed her with an old friend, the widow. It took over a month before the girl started talking. She didn't know a moment of her past before being found. Her oldest memory was seeing the city of Corurin in the distance.

Megumi only knew her name and nothing else. But she thrived under the care of her new mother and even though she was a Water fae in enemy lands grew to love her community as well. She was looked upon with indifference at best, suspicion at worst.

“I heard the news.” The young Water fae continued. “That Water and Fire are to be kin. And that all people are united now. I want to go to school.”

The old widow nodded. “It hasn't been cemented yet.” She cautioned. “But you have shown such skill, even your teachers have recommended the academy.” Her healing skill was head and shoulders over others her own age. It was natural, as Water fae have powerful healing capabilities.”I just want you to be careful. You'll be with older children.” The widow shifted, a slit in her calf-length dress relieved a tan skin of her thigh, covered with dark tattoo marks. “They have not known you as long as your peers.”

And they may not like her.

The sentence hung in the air, unsaid, but Megumi understood. While the people didn't treat her badly, children were constantly teasing. While a few had become friends, and a few had looked upon her with respect….others singled her out for hate.

“However, I can't stop you from going.” her mother said with a sigh, setting a hand gently on the strange inky black hair of her child. “Master Healer Bayle is eager to have you.”

The same Master Healer who had seen her on her first day in the city. “He is?” Megumi blinked in surprise.

“Very, he's kept his eye on you and your studies. The teachers speak of your skill.”

Megumi felt heat on her face. “I don't want to be treated as special.” She said quietly, looking away from her mother across the grassy field to where the brilliant sun baked stones of the academy jutted from the ground. She wanted to make it on her own skill. To earn her respect the same as anyone else.

Her mother smiled, her fingers threading through her silky straight hair. “Don't worry my child, I have faith in you.”

… . . …

“But I don’t wanna!” Kaoru wailed.

“Yeah, Fire people are scary.” Her six-year-old cousin, Misao agreed with a nod of her head.

Glendower shook his head at his charge. “Misao, Fire people are not scary, they are just different. That doesn’t mean they are bad.” Eyes gray with age turned to his seven-year-old daughter. “Kaoru this is an order from our King, we must not disobey.”

“But…” Kaoru wanted to argue. But as a girl of seven she did not yet possess the articulation needed to voice her feelings.

“Fire will be our Kin…they will protect you and everyone else in the Keep.” Glendower stated.

Kaoru twisted the handle of the basket made of dried river seaweed in her hands. The plant creaked but didn’t break. “But I don’t want them to move into the Keep, this is our home…they are mean and loud and…”

“And you have no choice but to marry the Nephew of the Fire King.” Glendower was tired of arguing with a child. He was just as unhappy as her, but he could see the logic in it. It would finally put an end to all the wars between them. The Keep would have protection, something it was lacking in. And he knew that his beloved child would be taken care of once he was gone.

Kaoru stomped her little foot, her face pinched. “This isn’t fair! I don’t wanna get married.”

“Nonsense, all little girls want to get married.” The old man stated.

“Yeah, when we’re older and not to some stupid hot-head.” Eyes as deep blue as the clearest lagoon began to water. She knew there was no way she could argue her way out of this if it was an order from the King.

“Be proud…you’re marrying above your birth.” The nephew to the Fire King…whereas Kaoru was only second cousin to Nernus. With this union, the two fighting clans will drop their misgivings about each other and raise up swords against their real enemy…the Dark Ones.

“This will truly be a grand wedding.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Kenshin muttered as he sat in the rocking carriage. A few weeks had passed, and the joke he thought his father was pulling turned out to be true and taking place in mere hours. He was to marry some Water brat. He tugged at the uncomfortable high collar of the red and gold formal tunic. He was used to the more flowing garments of his fellow Air assassins.

Sitting across from him, Hiko didn’t find any reason to comment. Kenshin had been pissed, boy was he ever. But even the teenager was mature and smart enough to see the reason behind their King’s decision and was smart enough to not disobey. “You’ll suffer a wedding, then you can go back with your troupe of assassins. You'll return only enough to see that the Keep running smooth, and to bed that whelp when she’s old enough. You’ll have all the freedom of an unmarried rurouni. And when Glendower passes, you'll be Lord.”

Kenshin looked out the window at the thick green forest around them and the looming rocky keep in the distance. Anyone would be proud to be master of such a beautiful structure with such powers. But Kenshin, even as a teenager, never fancied himself married. Not at this age and not to a Water.

… . . …

“Take it back Chou!” Kaoru shouted as she and the slightly older boy rolled around in the dirt just outside the keep. Misao, Kamatari, and Tae glanced at each other before shouting down at the two.

“Yeah, take it back Chou! You dirt eating Earth bug!” Misao shouted.

“Don’t let her get ya!” Kamatari countered, clearly on Chou’s side.

“Shut up, goblin!” Misao yelled as Chou and Kaoru continued to wrestle,

Kaoru managed to get the bigger boy under her and she sat on him, using her knees to pin his arms to the ground. She was covered in dirt, her hair was a mess, but she didn’t care. Anger flashed in her blue eyes and she was ready to box Chou’s ears. “Take it back Chou!” Point to Kaoru for getting the upper hand. Child battles, much like those of adults, had a point system. It was an unspoken way to keep track of the winner when most competitors were too young to really understand what they were fighting about.

“Why should I! My father didn’t lie! You are gonna marry that Fire man and let his people rape our Keep!” The boy struggled to get out from under the girl.

“I am not! That Keep is under Water protection, Earth clans never owned it, BAKA! You shouldn’t care.”

“You’re a sellout, your father’s a sellout too. You’re gonna lay with that Fire man and ruin everything!” Chou shot back.

Misao, Tae, and Kamatari had their mouths fall open and they glanced at each other again. “Oooooooo,” all three said in a low tone… Point for the Earth fairy.

Kaoru shrieked in anger. Summoning her power, she plunged her hand into the loose soil and pulled with it water from the underground. She mashed her hand against Chou’s face, smearing him with slimy mud.

The young spectators howled with laughter. Point to Kaoru.

“Arrgh!” The boy yelled, using his legs he rocked to the side, throwing Kaoru off balance. The boy and girl wrestled some more, smearing more dirt and mud on each other. And again the three other children cheered them on.

… . . …

“What is that noise?” Glendower muttered to two of his personal servants as he peeked out the window. “Gods! Kaoru’s fighting again!” he turned to one of the servants. “Get someone to stop her quickly! Huojin’s brother and nephew will be here at any moment!” The servant didn’t even take the time to acknowledge the order; instead, he turned and ran before the Lord could finish speaking.

“Gods, it’s too late!” The old man cringed as he saw the gates open for the approaching carriage. What a great first impression the bride was going to make.

… . . …

“What’s going on here?” Hiko asked as they pulled past the gates to the Keep. Both father and son glanced out the window of the carriage to see a scuffle unfolding between some children. One of the younger ones spotted them and pointed, shouting something they couldn’t hear. At once the fight stopped and a large boy stood, hauling his smaller opponent, surprisingly a girl, to her feet and he too pointed at the carriage. He said something to the girl which only seemed to make her more adamant in harming him. “Seems we may be the reason?” Hiko smiled over at his son.

Just then, a pair of maids dashed from the Keep and across the grassy lawn as fast as their legs could carry them. “Miss Kaoru! Miss Kaoru please!” they cried as they reached the muddy girl, taking her by the hands.

Kenshin jerked away from the window and slammed his back against the seat as his father chuckled.

“Well, seems that muddy girl is your bride.”

Kenshin set his teeth to keep from saying anything as he glanced out the window. The girl was being dragged back to the keep, her muddy hair wild, clothes dirty and torn, and large blazing blue eyes glaring the deepest hatred back at him.

… . . …

“What could have possibly compelled you to start a fight?! Kaoru you knew they would be coming at any moment and you had to wrestle in the mud, look at your Kimono!” Glendower scolded his daughter as a bucket of hot water was dumped over her head by a maid. Two other maids quickly got to work on Kaoru’s hair, washing the mud out and combing the snags and tangles.

“Chou started it!” Kaoru protested between the harsh scrubbing. “He said we were traitors! OW! Don’t scrub my skin off!” she yelped at a maid who washed too hard along a scrap she had received in the fight. She didn’t mean to snap, but she was mad and a mad seven year old didn’t care who she was being rude to.

“If you don’t marry this man then they will label us as traitors. We’ll lose the Keep and everything we are, is that what you want?” He glared down at his daughter.

“No.” Kaoru pouted.

Glendower softened a little. “Besides, you know better than to start a fight with an Earth boy…you know they are scatter brains when young.”

“Yes, father,” Kaoru said, her tone soft as he lowered her head.

The old man ran his hand through his hair. “Nice first impression.” He half muttered to himself. “Guests are arriving by the cartload, seems half the countryside wants to see this union.” He turned to his daughter. “Because of this, the ceremony will be late. You are to head straight to the altar, don’t you dare cause any more trouble.”

Misao sat silently in a chair beside the vanity table, and she looked over at her cousin as her uncle left the room. “Boy, you sure made him mad.” She said once she was sure the elder was out of earshot. Kaoru said nothing as she climbed out of the tub. The maids attacked her with plush towels. Once dried they rubbed perfumed lotion on her skin and dusted her with scented powder.

“Did you see him Kaoru? Did you?” Misao pressed.

She saw him all right, part of him at least. “Yeah.” She admitted as a new blue and white kimono was wrapped around her.

“He had crazy red hair!” The younger girl gasped.

“Yes, Misao I saw!” Kaoru snapped. Her hair was being tugged and pulled into the desired style. Pins and combs were inserted. Beads dangled from her hair, her obi was tied tight. A shimmering, glitter powered was dusted on her face, and her lips were painted an innocent pink, while her eyes had a lining of black. She looked like a beautiful bride, were it not for the fact that she was only seven years old. Misao was ushered out of the room as the ceremony was already underway. The maids scrambled, Kaoru let them pull her to and fro. But it wasn’t until she was outside and she looked up the trail to the altar with hundreds of eyes turning to her that she stubbornly dug her heels into the earth.

… . . …

“Stubborn till the end,” Hiko said under his breath as he moved past his son.

Kenshin glared at his father before turning his eyes at the spectacle. Old Glendower it seemed was having a hard time dragging his daughter to her wedding. But Kenshin couldn’t blame the girl. She was just as unhappy as he was, only she was young enough to act out her emotions, whereas he was old enough to “know better.”

Kenshin’s hair was pulled back tight and braided. He had on a black Kimono with brilliant red and orange flames on his back. Such attire was commonplace for Water clans, and being that he was in their territory, he was to wear their traditional clothes. At his hip was his sword and around his head was a gold circlet with a blazing ruby set in the center. He was the King’s nephew after all.

Growling like an animal and cursing, his bride finally made it to his side. She was planted rather firmly at his left. Looking down at her she glanced up defiantly and unafraid. She had pale skin common of her youth, her hair was shocking inky, blue-black, and those eyes that had glared at him before were just as impossibly large up close. As brilliant blue as he had ever seen, they flashed with a passionate hate. Once grown, this girl would be lovely to be sure. Stress pressed in on Kenshin, why was he the one who had to get married? Once away from this place, he would find himself a woman to spend a few nights with and forget about this whole thing. Once his father introduced him to the idea of hired lovers, Kenshin found it hard resisting learning the ways of pleasure making with skilled women with no emotional attachment. Once married, he was expected to honor his vows, as was the laws of Fires. Fuck their laws, he didn't want to get married, not to a brat water-child.

“Ow!” Kenshin yelped as a slipper-clad toe kicked him in the shin. His pleasant thoughts vanished instantly. “What was that for?” he hissed as the holy man was making his way to the altar.

“Because you’re a Fire, and you’re starin’ at me.” She stuck out her tiny pink tongue.

Can’t argue with the logic of a child. His jaw set, eyes glued ahead of him, he tried to block out much of the ceremony.

… . . …

Kaoru was afraid of him. She hated that. He had crazy fire for hair, and his eyes were yellow…Yellow! She didn’t want to marry this scary man. Maybe she could run? But a quick glance around her told her that would be impossible. Not only was her father a few steps away, but there were hundreds of people all around them. Most were of the local Water clan, but there were also many Fire and Earth and a few Air clan members and many other clans she had never seen before. All where here to witness the union of the Elementals once and for all. The holy man approached the stone altar. He was a fae, like all of them, but blessed with the powers of all the Elementals, a gift given only to holy members, they were neutral, and thus could be trusted by all. On the altar sat two bowls, one with a crackling fire, and the other with churning blue water.

The holy man was speaking but Kaoru wasn’t listening. She was too busy feeling hurt and sorry for herself. Of all the Water girls out there, she had to be the one forced to marry, it just wasn’t fair!

They had to hold hands now, Kaoru almost refused, but one look at her father told her a fate worse than a sound beating would await her if she didn’t. With a sigh, she took his offered hand.

Gods! Was he hot! She nearly yanked her hand away but was only just able to fight her reaction. His skin burned! Did all Fire’s have such burning skin? A second holy man stepped from behind them and wrapped a silk rope around their hands and down both their arms and back to their hands again. He tied the rope into a knot, making it into a loop and effectively tying them together. The silk rope was made with a braid of four colors. Blue and silver for the Water Clan, and red and gold for the Fire Clan.

Steam

Steam was rising from their clasped hands. Kaoru was startled, but He didn’t look worried, nor did the holy men or her father or anyone, for it was obvious the cloud of steam rising from their hands. Once she calmed though, the steam also subsided, but only a little.

Suddenly they were walking, the ceremony was over and the holy men and their father’s led them, still tied, to a rocky ledge on the side of the Keep. Here on this ledge, a deep cave opened up. It showed the best of the Keep. It’s glittering gems of many colors; fine metals, but best of all the many springs of clean, cool, magical water. The best spring was deep in the center of the Keep of course, but this small taste was enough to impress the Fires. Turning, the couple was centered on the ledge where all could see them. It was only then that Kaoru noticed just how many fairies turned up for the wedding. They were dancing, celebrating. War between them was over. Water and Fire danced together, steam rose up from all over the Keep. Turning the place into a humid jungle type of atmosphere.

Still tied together, the feast was served, but she didn’t eat much, neither did he. Everyone ate; there was music and more celebrating. It was a hassle having her main hand tied to his, but he didn’t argue or complain, and so she would rather bite her tongue off than to show her weakness.

But it was only so long before curiosity got the better of her. She found herself staring at the man tied to her. He noticed, of course. His ki flared, and the steam continued to rise from their hands. He stole glances at her before finally giving up.

“What?” he said, turning his full attention to her.

Kaoru wanted to pull away, but she refused to show the hot-head fear. She didn’t blink but only took in the sight of him. He was cute, as a seven-year-old could understand. Yet scary with such a serious face and flashing eyes. But there was a more pressing concern she had on her mind.

“What’s your name Hot-head?”

He blinked, obviously surprised. “They never told you my name?”

Kaoru shook her head. “They call you the “King’s nephew.” I’ve never heard your name.” for a moment he looked angry. His eyes narrowed, but they were not directed at her, she could tell his mind was somewhere in that raging fire of a brain he had.

“Well, you know your name or not?” Kaoru pressed.

He blinked. “Kenshin Himura.”

“Kenshin,” Kaoru repeated. “I don’t like it.” She said with the absoluteness of one her age. The man snorted, yet gave a half smile.

“I hate to inform you, but you’re now Mrs. Kaoru Himura, that you are.”

Kaoru’s eyes grew wide, her teeth flashed and she struggled to hold back her anger, but she failed from lack of experience. But she didn’t say anything, no, she kept silent, she didn’t even pound the table with her fist or anything of the sort. Point for her. Kaoru kept silent after that, refusing to talk to him or anyone for that matter, not that he had tried to hold anymore conversation.

It wasn’t until Kaoru found herself nodding off at the grand table did she hear him whispering to her father. Only then was the rope gently untangled from his arm. Her father carried her up to her room where she was silently undressed. Her face-paint removed and her nightclothes put on before she was placed into bed. The multi-colored rope was hung by two pegs over the headboard of her bed. Proof that she was married.

Later on that night, when the celebrations had finally died down, a carriage rumbled past the gates. The groom and his father vanished into the night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

“We’re doing the best we can with what we have. Trust us, this is the easiest way over this mountain, and those Drow are not going to make it with us in the way.” The elegant Takou, Lady of the Snow fairies was elegant in all her splendor. Her white hair was tied back in a tight braid and bun, glittering crystals kissed her hair and dress. Rock diamonds hung heavy around her neck. Her shimmering white and silver dress hugged her body tightly. She was the pinnacle of snow and grace.

Kaoru stood before her in a simple blue gi and white hakama pants. Her hip length hair was braided in two braids and wrapped around her head like a crown. Despite her simple garb, she was a beautiful young woman. Seventeen-year-old Kaoru clapped her hands in front of her and bowed respectfully. Snow fairies were related to the Water clan and they got along well. Takou ruled the snow-capped mountain that loomed up over the valley and cast a shadow on the Keep. They kept to themselves, not out of shyness or snobbery. But simply because they couldn't take the heat of most places. Even here, in the land of the Water fae, they would not stray far from the mountain and the safety of its constant cold. In the winter they would venture down into the Valley, but not much further, unless it was to try and make it to the next range of mountains before the spring.

With the Drow pressing ever closer, wanting to take over the valley, Kaoru was on a mission to make sure her Keep would be secure. She smiled at Lady Takou. “I’m happy to hear that.” And she was. The Snow fairies were not a soft people and they were extremely territorial. Kaoru herself had been intercepted halfway up the mountain by guards and escorted the rest of the way up. They knew her because of her father and treated her exceptionally, but Kaoru knew a stranger would be treated with extreme caution and an enemy was in for a world of hurt. But it was nice to have them guide her. A climb that would have taken days only took hours when the Snow faeries took her on their secret paths.

Takou’s reassuring face changed to one of sorrow. “I’m sorry, about your father.”

Glendower had passed away almost a year ago. Kaoru felt the tug of sadness in her chest, but it vanished quickly, he wouldn’t want her to wallow in sadness. Kaoru bowed her head again. “Thank you, My Lady.” With the passing of her father, the Keep would have been her husband’s…but because he had yet to return to the Keep after he left on their wedding night ten years ago, the Keep was in Kaoru’s hands at the moment.

“Are you sure you won’t stay?” The Lady of Snow asked. “You traveled so far.”

Kaoru shook her head and kept smiling. “No, I must get back to Aiga Keep. It’s overrun with Fires now.”

Takou wrinkled her nose and was yet able to look beautiful doing it. “Ghastly. Is the heat unbearable there?”

“Only near their foundries. Otherwise, the deep caves of the Keep are as cool as before.” Though the heat from the Fire People and the roaring blazes of the foundries had turned the Water owned Keep into a lush, green almost tropical place. It was swiftly becoming a favorite stopping place for Fae of all elements. “The trip was also to scout out the area of forest between here and the Keep. I haven’t had the time to travel and learn about the land as much as I should. As temporary ruler of Aiga, I think it’s about time I know the territory.”

The elegant lady gave a nod of her head. The diamonds around her neck sparkled tiny blinding rainbows. “You are a responsible Lady Kaoru. I’m sorry to say your husband is another story.”

In most cases, Kaoru would have defended her spouse. Only, as time went by, Kaoru felt the same way. She didn’t know her husband; much less love him in any sort of way. She expected him to return once news of her father’s death spread. But there wasn’t a word from where ever he was. If it wasn’t for the letters from the Fire King that came ever so often with the wave of new workers, Kaoru would have assumed her husband had died years ago. Still, she was embarrassed. Her respect for the man dwindled day by day.

“Let’s hope this isn’t always the case,” Kaoru said softly. Takou made the appropriate gestures for feeling sorry for the young Water fae. They said their goodbyes, wished each other safety and good luck. Kaoru spent just enough time to change from the clean court clothes to the traveling clothes she had been wearing. They had been meticulously clean and mended for her. A bright blue tunic of thick wool and tan pants, much like her hakama pants, only slightly tighter. The wool protected her from what cold she could feel. But being a water fae helped her stand the cold almost as well as the Snow people. A wooden sword was strapped to her belt. Kaoru didn’t like the idea of violence, like most Water fae they like to wear down their opponent slowly over time until victory could be made without causing much harm. Training alongside the Fire's gave her soldiers a viciousness she was unsure she agreed with.

Three guards escorted her back down the mountain, following trails that cut the traveling time to a fraction. They reached the halfway point where they had found her by late afternoon. They bid her safety and farewell before returning to the snow. Kaoru shouldered her pack and headed down, the snow was thin now and grasses were starting to poke up from the white. Then the air warmed suddenly and the snow and ice vanished rather abruptly and Kaoru was plunged into thick green conifer forest.

Kaoru slowed her pace. She wasn’t in any hurry to get back home. She was truthful when she told the Snow Lady that she was on a mission to learn the area. This part of the mountain slopped downward towards the large valley and was ringed with towering pine trees, there the forest extended; she could just make out the gray, rocky top of the Keep in the distance. It jutted out from the forest of green. There was lots of wilderness between here and there, Kaoru had rushed to make the trip, but now she would take her time on the return trip and explore the expanse of land between the two imposing structures.

She cut across the mountain as it sloped even more downward. This took her further from her home and it took her twice as long to reach the bottom. But once down, Kaoru was plunged into a thick, beautiful forest of fir, aspen, pine, and maple. As well as dozens of shrubs, vines, and bushes. Animals scattered before her as she took untraveled, overgrown animal trails. Her Snow cousin had reassured her that the Keep’s back was being watched by them, but with the Drow being spotted more and more often, Kaoru was on a quest to find a way to keep them away from her home. Kaoru paused, her walking staff dug into the earth as she turned into the direction of the Keep. From here it was impossible to see. The trees were too thick to see through and too tall to see any landmarks. But Kaoru knew it was a day’s walk away. She would make camp soon and get an early start in the morning. She would take the long way around to learn more of the area.

In her stillness, Kaoru heard something not normal in a forest full of animals. Curious, Kaoru ducked low in the overgrown grass and sticky branches of sapling trees and slowly moved forward.

… . . …

“You see that?” Sano said softly, indicating with a nod of his head to the distance in the North.

Kenshin pulled on the reins of his stallion and turned bright purple eyes in the direction. There, in the distance was a thin trail of almost invisible white smoke. Not a terribly strange sight but given the fact that they had been trailing evidence of Drow for the last two days made it suspicious.

On the small hill, Kenshin could see the vast thick spring green forest and the jutting rocks of the Keep nearly a day’s travel away. If there were Drow, they were definitely headed towards the Keep. This didn’t sit well with Kenshin. He frowned softly, delicate eyebrows knitting together.

Sano glanced at the disapproving face. “Are you goin' to scout it out?” The Earth Fae asked.

Kenshin thought about it for a moment. “Yes, I believe I will.”

“What about the Keep? What about your wife?” Sano grinned, he loved using that word around him.

Kenshin scowled slightly as he dismounted. “They went without me for ten years, what’s one more day?”

“I can’t believe it’s been ten years since the last time you’ve visited your wife man…that’s cold.”

“Ten years ago my wife was a bad-tempered, dirt-encrusted brat of seven years…I’m not in a rush to see what she’s turned into, that I am not.”

“Oh don’t give me that, I know you’re eager to see her.” Sanosuke teased as he took the reins for Kenshin’s horse. “You can’t tell me you’re not at all curious?”

In truth, just a little. Kenshin could remember the angry little girl he met when he was a teenager. She was pretty and was sure she grew into a pretty woman, but she was also a bad-tempered, foul-mouthed chit. “I’m visiting only because of the letters Aoshi’s been sending me. Though Kaoru rules with the same hand as her father, things seemed to of slipped. He tells me people are challenging my wife.” His eyes narrowed.
Sano gave him a sidelong look. “She’s written to you before, tellin' you all of this.” He paused, unsure if it was wise to bring it up. “She asked for your help long ago, remember. When her father was confined in bed with his sickness.”

“I know.” Was all Kenshin was going to say. A year and a half ago Kenshin didn’t want to think about the wife he had, not when there was a woman he would have given anything to be with. But she found out he was married; even though it was an arranged marriage to a child he had not visited since. She felt betrayed that she couldn’t become his wife…that she would be technically a mistress. That wasn’t what she wanted for her life. Kenshin’s heart still hurt when he thought about her. And he spent many months cursing his child bride and tossing her letters in the trash, unopened. Then one day, just under a year ago, they stopped coming and Kenshin stopped thinking about her and the Keep that now belonged to him.

But Aoshi was his friend. He read his letters and they painted a different picture. Not the painfully polite, yet somehow snobby writing of a nagging woman, but the down and dirty, honest tellings from an old friend who didn’t care if he hurt his feelings. It wasn’t until Aoshi stated that maybe he should divorce Kaoru and ask the Fire King to marry her off to one a bit more worthy of the job did it jolt Kenshin back to the here and now.

His Uncle would be livid if he broke his side of the peace treaty. Though the idea of severing the tie between him and the Water Fae and that Keep was tempting. It was social suicide not to mention it was possible for the peace treaty to fall to bits. The last thing Kenshin wanted was a war between the elemental fairies to start up again just when they were struggling to keep the Drow out of their lands.

“I’m here now and ready to take responsibility, that I am,” Kenshin said with conviction.

“Alright,” Sanosuke said, sitting up straight in the saddle. “I’ll tell them that you’re off scoutin' for Drow.”

“I should only be out a day or two,” Kenshin said as he turned.

“Don’t take them on if you’re badly outnumbered, man,” Sanosuke warned as Kenshin pulled a pack free of his horse and threw it across his back.

Kenshin smiled as he turned to look over his shoulder. “If I don’t, I’ll fall out of practice.” Then with a wave and a tug to tighten his sword belt, Kenshin stepped off the trail and was quickly swallowed up by the vegetation.

… . . …

Kaoru could smell the smoke. One would think that living in the Keep for years with the foundry the Fire’s built would have ruined her sensitivity to the smell of smoke. Yet the acidic smell of smoke within the crisp scent of the wilderness was easy for her to pick out. A frown pulled down her lips. Not that there was anything wrong with fires in the forest, but the scent of the smoke was off smelling. Curious, Kaoru closed her eyes and let her Water powers seep into the forest. She took a deep breath, turning her head this way and that until she was able to locate where the smoke smell was coming from…hopefully.

Slowly, Kaoru turned her body in the direction that felt right. She ducked under the thick plant-life and stalked, moving silently, slowly. She closed her eyes often, letting the energy of the forest tell her where she needed to go. Soon the strange smoke smell became stronger. It was a sweet undertone to the smell, strange for smoke…but not strange for burning sap.

Kaoru paused, resting on her hands and the balls of her feet. Melting resin would be used from everything from glue to fix weapons to waterproofing shoes and packs. Whoever was out there, was working on something. Then suddenly there was a sound that didn’t match the rest of the forest. The sound was slow, soft and raspy, like the sound of metal moving against metal. Kaoru’s blue eyes popped open and directly in front of her was a man. Her heart slammed to a stop and her chest tightened, pushing all the air from her lungs.

He didn’t see her, he was moving from her lower right to her upper left. The thick shrubs covered her. The strange sound she had heard was of him slowly pulling his sword free of its sheath. As he moved away, Kaoru quickly moved to get a better look. She didn’t see much of his face, but his blazing red hair was a dead giveaway.

Fire clan.

Kaoru felt a muscle in her face twitch. Was this Fire Fairy burning something in the middle of the forest? He must have realized she was stalking him but had no idea where she was. Well, she had the upper hand now. Moving slowly, not daring to breathe she pulled a small arrow-shaped dagger from her belt. Though she didn’t like violence and lethal weapons, she had to level the playing field a little. He had a sword, a wicked looking one at that. She clamped her teeth around the handle of the dagger and moved on her hands and feet slowly across the cover of vegetation. She kept her eyes on his bright hair and blue tunic. He seemed a little confused now, pausing and slowly moving his head this way and that.

Then finally he decided to stop, he crouched down against a large tree and took a few slow breaths. Moving with the sound of the wilderness around her, Kaoru was able to silently sneak up and flank him on the right side. It was best as he kept looking over his left shoulder and around the tree he was crouched by. From his movements and the sword he carried he looked military. His stalking skills were superb. If Kaoru hadn’t spied him on accident, she was sure she would be the one hunted. Why was he after her anyways? What had he been burning? Was it just to lure her out? How did he know she would be there? Was he from the Keep?

An ugly idea formed in Kaoru’s mind. Was this a plan to rid the Keep of its Water Mistress? Was he a killer for hire?

Alright, calm down Kaoru. She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She was just over an arm’s length away from him now. To get any closer she would have to step out of the cover and into the open. But she was at his side and he was constantly looking away from her. She could attack him easily. But she had to get information first. Who was he, what he was doing, was he hunting her and if so why and who hired him? He constantly flashed her his profile every time he rested back against the tree. He was startling to look at. Not only did he have bright red hair, but deep, hard purple eyes. His face was set in concentration, but it was easy to see the delicate features of his face. His clothes were thick traveling clothes, how long had he been traveling? He didn’t look dirty at all.

Then suddenly she saw her chance! He looked back over his shoulder around the tree, leaning way out, just enough to compromise his balance. Kaoru didn’t wait a moment longer. It was going to be now or never. With a single step, she slipped from her cover to move directly behind the large tree. She wrapped her arm around him and set the point of her dagger firmly against his throat with the point jabbing up under his chin. She could feel him freeze and at once his sword slipped from his fingers and he lifted his hands in the universal unarmed surrender. Silently and slowly he turned back against the tree.

His violet eyes shot open when he saw her and he relaxed ever so slightly. Now that Kaoru was looking at him full on, she saw he had a rather large X-shaped scar that ran from ear to chin and from jaw to nearly his eye. Yet even with the massive scar, it did not take away the effect of his handsome face. Just as she was about to interrogate him he slid his hand up and placed a finger over his lips. Kaoru’s eyes narrowed but she kept quiet as he pointed to his left.

She leaned slightly, keeping her eyes on the man, lest he tries something while she was distracted. But with a flick of movement, her eyes landed on something far more terrible than the Fire Fae she held.

A camp of Drow.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Smothering a gasp, Kaoru yanked herself back behind the tree. Her heart was pounding hard now and she slowly dropped the blade from her captor. She could see an angry red line where her blade had cut into his skin. At once the sword returned to his hand and he reached up and pulled her closer. Kaoru was forced to fall on one knee as they crouched huddled against the tree.

“I only see three.” He said in the barest of whispered, hardly more than a movement of his lips. Any louder and the Drow would be alerted to them. They were working, melting resins to help assemble arrows She hoped the sounds of their work would muffle their slight whispering.

“Three for two. I’m fine with that.” Kaoru mouthed back. She knew she could take at least one as long as he watched her back with the other two. But his eyes went wide again and he gave his head a firm shake.

“You stay.”

“No.”

“Too dangerous.”

“Scouts not so bad.”

“Scouts use arrows.”

“So? It's too tight a space for them to use them.”

He opened his mouth but bit back the curse that he was about to utter. “Not safe, go.” He took her by the shoulder and tried to push her towards the cover of undergrowth, but she resisted him.
“I’ll take the smaller one, just watch my back with the other two.” She mouthed and then stood. The man scrambled to his feet before she threw herself out there. He grabbed her again, pulling her to look at him.

“Fine, But I go first.”

Kaoru didn’t even have a chance to acknowledge this, for the red-head rushed around the tree with a war cry that froze her feet to the spot. Kaoru cursed loudly and rushed after him. It was easy to spy the smaller white-haired Drow as he jumped up with his bow. He didn’t have any time to nock an arrow though, for Kaoru was already upon him. A simple swipe and the razor edge of her dagger cut the bowstring. The wood gave a violent jump as it was released from the tension and flew from the hands of the scout. Kaoru grabbed the youth and spun herself behind him and placed the blade against his throat with the point under his chin, just as she had done to the red-head. Waves of evil and hate washed over her. Quickly she threw up a wall of cleansing water in her mind to block the oily blackness of their life force.

It was only then did Kaoru witness the skill of the stranger. He had already killed the largest Drow. One that must have stood head and shoulders over the rest and weighted at least twice as much. Though the second scout the Fire Fae was working on now was a bit shorter, he was whip-thin. His snow-white hair was pulled back tightly and braided. He spat curses at the Fae in their rough dark language as the pair circled each other. Glowing eyes flashed over to Kaoru and the hostage she held.

The Drow reached back and pulled from his belt a dagger that he held along with the thin, short sword in his other hand. His bow was tied to his back and his quiver was empty of arrows. They must have been his arrows they were making. The Fire Fae moved sure-footed and with liquid grace. His large eyes were focused, his mouth a thin line in concentration. The two men circled like a pair of fighting cocks, one sizing up the other. One waiting for the other to move, to twitch, to give away one single hint of what they were going to do. Then, in a whirl of motion, the Drow heaved the dagger. It flew past the stranger harmlessly and in a moment of panic, Kaoru saw that it was meant for her.

It was no use doing anything, she couldn’t dodge a throw like that in time! But the dagger was not aimed at her, but her hostage. She gasped as the razor edge of the blade bit into the skin of her arm as the blade buried itself up to the hilt into the boy’s chest. The Drow youth shuddered and then turned into dead weight in her arms. She let the boy fall to the ground and she looked up to see red and white blurs as the Fire and Dark Fae fought. Metal sang against each other. Her Fire companion moved with the swiftness of an Air Fae but had brute strength and soon he was wearing the Drow down. Kaoru could see the faint red-orange glow of light coming off the Red-head. He was using his powers. It wasn't wise in these Water lands. The clouds hid the sun often. He would deplete his energy quickly at this rate.

Kaoru flipped her small dagger so she held it by the blade and waited. Her eyes closed, pulling from her gifts. She was not a violent person, she didn’t like killing. But the Drow were not ones to pity. Never once would one stop to think about not killing someone. Their bodies, like all living things, were mostly water, she could feel the energy from this water pulling at her powers. Two swift moving blurs, one boiling hot, the other inky black. Kaoru cocked her arm back and locked onto that inky black motion, it slowed, no longer a blur. Kaoru opened her eyes to see the world moving quite slowly around her. Already her arm swung forward, her fingers releasing the dagger. The dagger tumbled end over end through the air, like a magnet it was drawn to the evil.

The world returned to full speed and Kaoru blinked, only to see the Drow swivel and with his sword, slash at her dagger, cleaving it in two. The blade fell one way, the handle another.

She failed.

But the distraction was enough that the red-head lunged forward, slashing across his body, catching the Drow across the middle. Blood sprayed like a fine mist and Kaoru had to shut her eyes lest she get blood in them. When she opened them again, the Drow was convulsing on the forest floor, spraying more blood as his body refused to die. The Fire Fae took his sword in both hands and rammed it right though his neck, with a twist there was a ‘pop’ and the Drow was finally silent.

The red-head looked over at Kaoru, his face was grim but he nodded. “Good throw.” He complimented.

Kaoru used the sleeve of her tunic to rub the fine layer of blood from her face. “Thanks. It didn’t work though.” She slowly dropped her mental shield of water, visualizing it slowly pulling any taint of evil from her life force as it seeped into the Earth.

“Not so.” He shook his head. “You gave me an opening.”

Kaoru tried to smile, but her stomach was churning. It wasn’t often Kaoru was faced with this kind of violence. She had never been this close before and it was the first time she watched someone die a drawn-out and painful death. With a hand pressed to her stomach, Kaoru wandered over to the youth she had taken, a prayer to the Goddess Sedna on her lips. “It’s too bad he killed the boy. We could have got information out of him.” She heard her companion step up beside her. He was cleaning his sword with a rag the Drow were using to clean theirs.

“That was probably the reason he killed the boy. He knew he would give up information. Better to silence him.”

Kaoru stole a sidelong glance at the stranger. He was calm, despite the sudden battle. Kaoru couldn’t seem to make her heart stop racing. She felt jittery, her hands were shaking, her legs were trembling and her stomach ache was growing. “You were very good. What kind of training have you had?” She blinked a few times as her vision swam.

… . . …

Kenshin sheathed his sword and glanced over to see the female sway. He frowned slightly. “I was in the military.” Kenshin answered, turning to face the Water Fae. “Are you well?”

She placed a shaking hand over her eyes. “I-I’m not sure.” She said, swaying dangerously.

“Whoa.” Kenshin reached out to steady her. His hand rested on her upper arm and he could feel how her body twitched and trembled. Seeing the glassy look in her blue eyes suddenly made his heart stop. “Did you get wounded?!”

“Just a scratch.” Her words were slurred.

“Let me see!” he demanded. She held out one hand and Kenshin grabbed it, pulling up the sleeve of her tunic. There on her arm just above the wrist was a small scratch. “When did you get this?” the scratch was not red, but black, and thin dark lines like spider’s web were already spreading across the pale skin.

“When he killed the boy…the blade nicked me.”

“Poison!” Kenshin realized. “That black resin! It was to poison their weapons!”

Poison? Kaoru blinked, confused as disoriented thoughts rushed at her. She was too far away for help from the Keep or the Mountains. She didn’t know what the black resin was or how to counter it. A dull pain was growing in her arm and her hand was starting to tingle.

But the Fire Fae was moving quickly. He pulled Kaoru away from the camp and back to the large tree where she had ambushed him. “I’ve seen many men die from this poison.” He said in a grim tone, catching Kaoru’s eyes. “But I’ve also seen many survive. You must trust me.”

“What choice do I have now?” Kaoru muttered as her body started going weak. Through blurred vision she watched the Fae pull a small knife from his belt. He took her scratched arm and before she could fight him, sliced across the scratch with the knife.

“Ah!” Kaoru yelped, yanking at her arm but the red Fae held fast.

“Don’t struggle.” He demanded in a tone that showed he was used to being obeyed. At once blood started to drip from the wound and he applied pressure down her arm, trying to force the poison out.
Kaoru froze, she leaned heavily against the trunk of the tree as her body grew weaker.

“It’s not enough.” She heard him say and she swung her glazed eyes over to see him set his jaw in determination. He turned her arm, stepped closer and ducked his head. Kaoru gasped at the feel of his mouth pressing tight over the wound. A new burst of pain made her suck in her breath as he pulled her blood into his mouth. He pulled away only long enough to spit the blood out before returning to the task.
But it seemed of no use, for Kaoru felt the world slipping away. Her legs gave out and she slowly slid down the tree as the forest grew darker and further away.

“Hey. No stay with me.” She heard a faraway voice say. But she just couldn’t struggle and she let the darkness swallow her up.

… . . …

It seemed as if only a moment had past, but to her body it felt like a lifetime. Kaoru woke, groggy and heavy, wanting nothing more than to slip back into deep sleep. But her will to stay alive forced her to stay awake. She gazed up at the underside of the forest canopy a dark, black sky loomed overhead. The trees and leaves danced in shadow from the light of a rather large fire a few feet away from her right. Turning her head slightly to the left she could see a lean-to had been constructed around her.

Jumbled memories returned as Kaoru struggled to sit up. She was lying on a bed of fresh pine bough, and a surprisingly warm blanket was tucked around her. Now sitting up, Kaoru slowly pulled her arm out from under the blanket, wincing as the skin pulled at the wound. It had been wrapped. Kaoru gazed down at the pristine white bandages as if confused as to their purpose.

Then suddenly he was there. The Fire Fae she had encountered.

He kneeled beside her and with one hand on her shoulder and the other at her side, slowly pressed her down until she was on her back once more. “You need to rest.” He said kindly, giving her an apologetic smile as he pulled the blanket back over her.

“How long have I been resting already?” Kaoru’s words flowed in the same jerky rhythm as an extremely drunk man.

“The rest of the day. Night has just now come.” He turned and Kaoru felt him sit something large just behind her head. “I found your pack.”

“Thanks.” She whispered, closing her eyes. Her walking staff was lost, she was sure. No bother, it was part of the forest and it only returned to its rightful home.

She heard the Fae move away and return. She forced her eyes to open as he dipped in close to her body and slipped an arm under her shoulders and pulled her upward only slightly.

“Rest against me.” He said and with her lack of strength, Kaoru had no choice but to sag against his supporting arm. An earthenware cup was pressed to her lips and Kaoru felt the cool touch of water. With the greed of a small child, Kaoru noisily drank down every drop. The liquid flowed, seeping into every cell. Her Water energy was severely low. Only time and water could restore it until she got to the Keep. The Fire Fae smiled warmly. “Is that better?”

“Much,” Kaoru admitted once she caught her breath. “Can I have more?”

Warm purple eyes danced as he chuckled softly as he carefully lowered her back down. “Of course you can. Or, if you want, I made dinner if you feel up to it?”

Kaoru glanced over at the large fire to see a small pot sitting beside some glowing coals he had pulled away from the fire. The idea of food made Kaoru’s empty stomach cramp and she was suddenly sure she could eat a whole deer to herself. “I’m starving.” Again the redhead smiled and Kaoru’s heart gave a soft flutter.

“Dinner is served, that it is.” He said, moving quickly to his own pack and pulling a bowl from it. He ladled some of the soup in the bowl and returned. This time he allowed Kaoru to sit up completely but he still had her lean against him to save her strength. Kaoru felt strange letting herself lean against his chest as he wrapped his arm around her side and helped her hold the bowl with the other. He was warm though, the heat of him seeped into her stiff body. The soup was rabbit he must have caught, with a half dozen wild edibles thrown in. Onion, some garlic, thin wild carrots and tubers of some kind mingled with the meat, as well as a few more greens. Kaoru ate slowly only because she lacked the strength or coordination to wolf it down like she wanted to. She drank water like a greedy child, much to his amusement.

Near the end of her meal, she felt the Fire Fae press his forehead to the back of her head and sigh.

Kaoru froze. “Is everything alright?” she asked. He must be just as tired as she was.

“It was close, that it was.” Was all he said at first. A long silence stretched out and Kaoru thought he would say no more. But then slowly, softly, he continued. “You are brave and strong. You caught me off guard and you joined me in battle against those scouts.” He took a deep breath. “I almost lost you.” He said softly. “I got much of that poison out, but there was no way for me to get rid of it all.” He sighed then, the arm at her side tightened, pulling her tighter against him. “You stopped breathing twice. I had to give you my breath to bring you back.”

The kiss of life. Kaoru touched her tongue to her lips, the idea of being so near death made the soup sit heavy in her stomach. But this man had saved her. He didn’t even know who she was, she even attacked him.
“T-thank you. For saving my life.” She said softly, her chin going to her chest.

“I had to.” He said simply, his tone uplifting. “I never had a Fae sneak up on me before.”

… . . …

She felt weak in his arms but Kenshin was certain that she would be fine. Her hair felt damp and cool against his forehead and smelled of clean sweat from the brief yet terrifying bout of fever she had battled while unconscious. He remembered praying to the God Tohi. The God of fire and creation. Although his prayer was more like demands than requests in-between gasps of air as he breathed life back into the water fae. He only now wondered if the Fire Deity would help one from the wet clans. His arm tightened around her yet again and she lifted her head slightly. He had seen the blue light of her Water life force expand around her and slowly fade away as it tried to help her body heal. He was afraid too much of that power was gone now. She would need to replenish it soon if she was to get well.

“You’re being overly sentimental about this.” She said lightly.

Kenshin smiled to himself, a sad upturn of lips. “I feel responsible for you being wounded. I swore I would do right by you.”

The Water Fae huffed. “I wanted to help you, remember. I’m not your responsibility.”

Kenshin pulled away slightly so she could turn and face him. “Even so, allowing you to help me was a promise that I would protect you.”

His words made her huff even more. Blue eyes flashed with emotion in a fascinating display.

“I don’t need your protection.” She insisted. “I've been trained since childhood. I caught you if you remember.”

Oh, Kenshin remembered. His heart nearly stopped when he felt the cold bite of a blade against his throat. He thought a Drow had snuck up from behind him. Imagine his surprise to see a female Water Fae at the end of that knife.

Kenshin was not prejudiced. A woman could do the same amount of harm as a man. If anything they could use their gender to strike a fatal blow. And in his younger years he might have thought himself stronger than a Water Fae, but as he grew older he soon learned that each element had their own power. Still, …he was surprised.

He watched the anger flood her eyes and bring them to life. He was glad, for he had seen those same eyes faded in death and twice he had brought her back. “Yes, yes. I remember” he said softly.

“Thank you though.” She said gently. “For saving my life.” She repeated.

Kenshin couldn’t help but hold her tightly. “Think nothing of it.” He said as she drifted off.

… . . ...

A soft sigh broke the early morning silence as Kaoru let her eyes flutter open. Directly before her, the large fire had died down to a few glowing coals in the middle of a black circle. A thin trail of smoke weaved its way up from the embers. The sun was just starting to peek up from the horizon and sending golden shafts of light to weave around the trunks of trees. Quickly she recited her morning prayer.

“Earth below, sky above,
Morning Sun bringing love,
Oh, gracious Goddess,
Oh gracious God
I ask you to stay with me this day.
Be in my thoughts and heart,
In all I do and all I say.
Mother of all,
Help me be the best I can be
So people will know the wonder of you.
Oh gracious God,
Keep me safe and whole
And face each day with hope and joy.”……

The ritual words flowed with ease from memory and continued on for a few more long moments. Normally she spoke the prayer out loud, but the wonderful sound of morning birds and rustling leaves were too wonderful for her to interrupt. And at the end, she thank the Goddesses and Gods for the Fire who healed her. Shifting her eyes and moving to sit up, she found her unexpected companion leaning against the trunk of a tree beside her lean-to. His chin was to his chest and his mane of red hair acted as a curtain to hide his face. One hand rested on his knee while the other was gripping his sword. Even in sleep he didn’t allow himself to relax.

Odd how much had happened in the span of a day. She spoke to the Snow Lady, ambushed a Fire, attacked a camp of Drow and then nearly died. Oh, how her father must be rolling in his grave.
But what an adventure.

Kaoru couldn’t help but smile at the sleeping red-head that had saved her life. He didn’t have to save her life after she had attacked him. But he had, he had fought hard to keep her alive.
Feeling odd about her new experience, she slowly climbed up to her feet and reached for her pack.

“Careful.”

Kaoru turned at the sound of his voice. She found the Fire standing, looking as if he wasn’t asleep a moment ago. He looked calm and in control, but there was something in his eyes. It was just a flash, a moment of worry and concern. It was just enough for Kaoru to catch and she felt a sudden rush of emotion. It caused her eyes to burn and her throat closed up.

“I’m alright.” She said around the lump in her throat.

He could hear the catch in her voice and his eyes seemed to pierce right into her. “Are you sure? You can rest longer…I’ll take care of you, that I will.”

That was it. Kaoru swung back down to her pack to hide the surge of tears from him. Why couldn’t she hold it together? She struggled as she sorted through her pack, not seeing anything inside. Was it because after all this time someone finally seemed to care? After her father passed over a year ago, she had felt little of that warm caring. Sure her friends loved her and her most loyal people cared for her, but this was different. This was a stranger, someone from the outside that had only known her for a few hours and really seemed to worry about her. And then, it was her condition she had to think about. Her powers were nearly drained, she was weak. She needed a bed-mate to help restore her. But no, that was out of the question. She gave her head a mental shake.

Finally, her hands landed on a soft pack of cloth-like seaweed from the now tropical waters around the Keep. “I’ll be right back.” She was surprised at how controlled her voice was. She risked looking over her shoulder and flashed the stranger a smile. “Gotta take care of nature.”

Her bout of silence had worried him, and his expression hardly changed. “Oh, alright. Don’t go far, call me if you need help.”

Kaoru gave a soft laugh. “I’m sure I can manage.” She said as she moved away from the clearing to a thick overgrowth of sapling trees.

“Yes, but you are still extremely weak, that you are.”

He had taken a step as if he wanted to follow her, but finally paused and let her wander off to her privacy.

Kaoru, finally alone had to steady herself and breathe deep. She missed her father, and the feeling of safety …the feeling of being cared for by someone. It suddenly rushed her and she allowed herself a moment to weep at the feelings this stranger had suddenly pulled to the surface. If she had died, would anyone really care?

… . . …

Kenshin had seen her crumble. It took all he had not to follow after her. With a sigh he paced the clearing. He would allow her her privacy but it was difficult to witness the change in her. The warrior Water fae that had fought so bravely beside him deflated before his eyes. Even while poisoned and dying, she was brave and stubborn. Something had happened; it was as if she suddenly lost her will.

It was hard, he realized. Kenshin was stunned to recognize that he was as attached to the Water as much as he was. He wasn’t much fond of them, truthfully; after his forced marriage. Yet this woman had the passion of a Fire.

Finally, she returned and her red eyes gave away the fact that tears had fallen. Even though she flashed him a breathtaking smile, it was hard to see those jewel-like eyes red and puffy. Kenshin didn’t inquire, if she wanted to express her emotions out of eyesight then he could respect that.

“How are you feeling?” He pushed.

“A bit weak. But considering I was dying hours ago I guess I’m doing pretty well.” She said as she folded his blanket.

Oh, how she was facing that fact. Kenshin was no fool. He had been in countless battles. He had seen hardened warriors come back from the brink of death and fall to bits for days. It was hard for a person to suddenly face the fragile thread that their mortality had become. This woman was no different. He could see that she had cried, he could see the tremor in her hands as she struggled with the blanket and the forced calmness she was trying to show.

He could almost feel the cry from her body, the need for intimacy. It was strange, the nature of the Water Fae, but not strange to Kenshin. He knew and fought alongside many Earth fae and they liked nothing more than to spend their times in the arms of lovers. It was how they tapped into their power. How they survived. Water were nearly the same, he had learned. For Fire, however, the act of lovers was strictly forbidden other than between a man and his wife. He tossed those vows out long ago. But the laws still meandered in his mind. And his lost love meandered in his heart.

Without a word, and before he could think better of it, he set his sword against the lean-to and approached her. He took the blanket from her shaking hands and dropped it back on the forest floor. She glanced up at him in question. Her mouth just opened to speak but he took her in his arms and held her tightly against him.

“What..?” She started, moving to push away. But she was weak and Kenshin held tight.

“Cry.” He demanded.

“I beg your pardon?” She moved her head so she was eye to eye with him. She was startled, frozen, like a deer the moment it’s been spotted.

“I want you to cry, that I do.” He continued.

“I…I don’t want to cry.” She suddenly sounded angry and there was a flash in her eyes, but it quickly fizzled away.

“You need to. You’re facing your mortality, the fact that you about died and what that would mean to the people in your life. You’re a fragile creature, and your story almost ended yesterday. I know what that can do to a man. I know you need to express it or it will weigh heavy on your heart for far too long. And I don’t want to see your beautiful spirit crushed by this, that I don’t.”

Shocked by this, she looked up at him. Her mouth open, eyes wide but her voice silent. Then as if in slow motion he watched as she fell to pieces. Tears flowed from those impossibly large eyes and she fell against him as her legs gave out. Kenshin bore her weight and rested his chin on top of her head as she sobbed into his chest.

“There…that’s better.” He whispered. He ran his hand through her blue-black hair as he softly encouraged her. There was fear and pain flowing out of her body as the tears flowed from her eyes. He supported her the whole time.

After a few minutes, her sobbing quieted but the tears still flowed. Her arms had wrapped around him and she held him just as tightly as he was holding her.

“I had never felt lonelier in my life.” She finally said around the hiccups and slowing tears.

Surprised, Kenshin tipped his head to look at her. Her hair was a mess, her face far more red and puffy than before, but she was still just as lovely. “Lonely? How would a woman like you possibly be lonely?” He meant it as a bit of a joke, to lighten the mood and get her to see that she wasn’t as lonely as she thought. Yet she buried her face back against his damp clothes and gave a shuddering sigh.

“I have no close family. I have friends, yes. Some of them very close…but no one would really miss me if I passed on.” She fell so silent and still after that and Kenshin held her extra tight.

“I had a moment…” her voice stuck.

“A moment..?” Kenshin pressed. But she shook her head silently. “Tell me, it will only eat at your soul if you don’t.”

“I had a moment, that I wished I had died, so I could join my family. But I have too much responsibility to go now.” She added quickly, “I’m not a coward; I won’t run away from what I have to do.” She pulled away to look up at him. “It was only a moment of feeling, but it’s gone now.”

Kenshin gave her a soft smile. “And do you feel better after a good cry?”

She nodded. “It was nice…to have someone there while I cried. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He was about to finally start to pull away but she held him tightly and suddenly placed her lips against his. It was just a fluttering kiss, a nervous, unsure touching of the lips. Yet it froze Kenshin to the spot. She pulled away slightly, eyes large as if surprised by her actions. Then seeing that he didn’t pull away, tipped her head and kissed him again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

It was not a shy fluttering kiss this time and Kenshin took advantage of that. His hand that had combed her hair while she cried now moved to cup the back of her head to hold her to him as he parted his lips. At this, she stiffened for just an instant before opening her mouth and accepting him. She pressed against him, one hand held his hair tightly and she kissed him with as much passion as he was kissing her. If she wanted some companionship after nearly leaving this world Kenshin would not, could not deny her. Already he could feel the force of Water energy trickle in from the surrounding forest to gather inside her.
His broken heart still stung, his forced marriage waited for him ahead. But right now he wanted nothing more than this brave spitfire who battled alongside him. She pulled at his clothes, exposing battle scared skin. As her hands ran over him steam started to rise from their bodies and his control slipped away.

“Gods.” He gasped as he finally pulled himself away. But only long enough to nearly rip his tunic from his pants and with force, wrenched her sleep-rumpled travel tunic from hers. Their bodies came back together, arms held each other tightly and Kenshin’s lips immediately went for the irresistible white column of her neck. Her soft yet heavy breathing only stoked the fire that was growing within him. And when his hands found the two mounds of flesh and their pebble hard nipples she nearly cried out and she surrendered whatever reservations that were holding her back.

… . . …

Flushed, and breathing hard, Kenshin eased himself off the lovely Water fae and stretched out alongside her body. They had taken shelter in the lean-to and had the blanket under them. He watched her closely as she slowly came down from the waves of pleasure he had just given her. The glittering blue wisps of light died away from her body. The healing power of water that was evoked whenever a Water had sex. He hoped it would help her. The smear of blood on her thighs and his hips proved that he had just taken her innocence. Kenshin was unsure how to feel. At first, he was shocked at having entered her and feeling her tear and seeing her pain. He was thankful that he was smart enough to make sure she was well and truly ready for him before…or the encounter could have been much more painful for her. However, after that initial shock, their passions soon overtook them both and it was quickly forgotten.

… . . …

Kaoru caught her breath and slowly let her mind ease back into her body, a body relaxed and languid. The warm sun filtered through the canopy and it seemed as if she could see the dust motes as they danced across the shafts of light. She suddenly realized the canopy from the trees around them were rowan, which was why they had been safe from harassment during the night. She slowly turned her head and found the Fire fae watching her closely.

“Yes?” she asked, surprised at how breathless she was.

“I’m sorry.” He said.

Kaoru blinked. And turned her body and propped her head up with one hand. “For what?”

“I didn’t know you were innocent. I wouldn’t of…I mean I’m not making excuses but I wouldn’t have done…what I did.”

Kaoru smiled. “It had to happen sooner or later.” Although, if her husband ever found out…would that be grounds for a divorce? What would that mean for the treaty? Could she maybe fake her innocence if the time ever came that her husband would finally want to consummate their marriage? She was sure she could.

He must have seen her thoughts because he reached out and brushed the side of her cheek with his fingertips. “I didn’t cause you trouble, did I? I tried to make sure it was what you truly wanted. I know rape isn't something common in these parts.”

Again Kaoru couldn’t help but smile at him. How sweet that he worried so for her. Locked away in her memory was his beautiful features and how those lavender eyes look at her when he reached the peak of his pleasure and the fierce determination in his voice as he coaxed her into her own climax over and over again. The trail of strange tattoos that was along his spine and wrapped around his side. Hard slashing marks that must have been a language danced down his ribs to trail away at his abdomen. Much of the markings were interrupted by scars, but that didn't take away from them. She would keep these memories because she knew she must never see him again. And strangely it hurt, but Kaoru figured it was only normal to feel as such for one’s first lover. And his words did bring a startling fact to the front of her mind. Fire's could rape, while Water and Earth were unable to. It wasn't safe or smart to tempt a Fire. But she shoved the thought away. She wanted this just as much as he did.

“No, you didn’t,” Kaoru answered as she curled up to the heat of his body. He wrapped one arm around her in welcome as she pressed against him. It was still a marvel at the heat that radiated from his body. “I wouldn’t have started it if it would have.” Oh, what a lie. If she was found out, she would be in a mess of trouble. “Water fae have a rather relaxed views on sexual relations. I just wanted to kiss you, as a thank you for taking care of me.” She felt herself blushing. “I got carried away.”

The Fire shook his head. “A man who came that close to his death suddenly finds himself eager for the pleasure only a woman can give him. Something basic, primal to know they are indeed still alive…I’ve seen it at every battle, even for us uptight Fires.”

Kaoru laughed. “I’m not a soldier….or a man.”

He smiled too. “Yes, but you had your first brush with death, that you have. And I've seen countless warrior women do the same.” His eyes took their time roaming her naked body curled next to his. He chuckled softly. “I admit I’m glad I was here to make sure you felt alive again.”

Kaoru laughed with him and stretched back on the ground and looked up at the sky, completely comfortable letting him see her. “Well, you certainly did that.”

Kenshin's face twisted into a cringe and he suddenly looked ashamed. “You are not too terribly young? Are you?”

Kaoru blinked. “What do you mean?”

“I know Water females take their bed-mates a year after their first bleeding.”

Kaoru laughed once she realized his worry. He thought she was a youth who was not yet a year after her first moon-blood. “No, no. I am not that young.”

Relief flooded his features and he relaxed. “A late bloomer?”

“No, it has been many years since my first moon-blood.” She could see that he was perplexed by her answer. She didn't want to say that she had been forced to remain celibate because she was married to a Fire and had to obey their laws. So she added, “I was just waiting for the right man.”

… . . …

It was getting on in the day and the two strangers found it hard to part ways. Kenshin found it rather difficult to walk away from such a magical creature. This Water fae had made him feel more this past day than he had all year. Surely she was a Selkie, a sea temptress and all he would have to do is find and hide her seal skin and keep her forever.

Kaoru would have given anything to just wander off with this red-headed Fire. But she had responsibilities back at the Keep. She must do her father proud. And though she felt such crushing loneliness she realized that she had many friends back at the Keep who would miss her terribly if she vanished without a word. Besides, she didn’t know anything about this man, not even his name. And that was for the best. She didn’t want to know his name. She didn’t want to constantly think about him and how he made her feel wanted, even if it was only for a few hours during their tryst. Besides, he could be married with a family somewhere. That made her feel a bit guilty as she re-arranged her traveling pack while the Fire dressed. He must live close by as well, as he was wearing the traditional clothing of the region. She suddenly hoped that they wouldn't run into each other again.

She was married. And though it was common for married people to have lovers in such arranged marriages, she had yet to consummate her marriage. And though her people didn't view sex as anything more than fun and a way to replenish energy, they were expected to respect their spouse. If she'd been unmarried, this coupling wouldn't have mattered much, but she was married and to a high member of the Royal family. She lost her innocence to a man who was not her husband. Kaoru froze, her mouth slightly open in shock.

Gods, what if she were to become with child? She glanced at the handsome Fire as he tucked and folded his traveling gi around his body. Though he had red hair like her Fire Husband it would be quite obvious infidelity being that her husband had yet to ever show up at the Keep. It would be treasonous for sure. She covered her eyes with one hand and took a breath. She would have to keep a close eye on herself. It made her sick but something like this could lose her the Keep and she would find herself homeless at the very best, in prison or at the end of a noose at the very worst. Maybe it would be better to take precautions before his seed could take too deep a root in her.

“Are you going to be alright?”

Kaoru jumped at the voice right beside her and she dropped her hand from her eyes and made sure she had her best smile on. He looked worried still. “I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure? You’re still a bit weak. I don’t feel comfortable letting you go off on your own. Especially with Drow obviously pressing in.”

“I know this area well. I don’t live far from here.” Half lie, she didn’t know the area that well at all, that was what half this journey was about, to learn the area. But he seemed to believe her.

“Will you promise me something?” He asked as she shouldered her pack. She turned and blinked at him and nodded. “Will you go straight home?”

Kaoru still wanted to explore. But with the pack on her back, she suddenly realized just how weak she had become from the poison. Perhaps it would be a smart idea to save exploring for another day. “I will.” She promised. And she was rewarded with a smile that made his lavender eyes sparkle.

“I wish you the best of luck then.” He turned.

“Are you looking for the main road?” Kaoru asked.

He paused and turned to face her again with a sheepish smile. “I am.”

Kaoru grinned. “Then you want to go that way.” She pointed to her right.

“That way…right, thank you.” And he walked past her he paused. “Goodbye Water fae.” He whispered as he ducked his head and stole a kiss before vanishing into the woods.

He was gone just like that. He was silent and swift and in seconds Kaoru felt as if she was the only one in the forest for miles.

“Goodbye Fire.” She said softly.

… . . …

Kaoru located one of the streams that flowed away from the Keep and followed it for the rest of the day. She paused more than once to dip her hands in the water and let the power and energy flow into her. A scale pattern appeared on her skin as the water flowed over it. At one point a group of water sprites the size of her hand carefully approached and watched her from the splash of a tiny waterfall. She acknowledged them but basically ignored them. They rewarded her respect by returning to their play. To any passerby, they might look like the splashing of water over the rocks or from the small waterfall. But to a Water fae, it was easy to spot the watery shapes dancing and playing.

Rejuvenated from the power of her element she made good time and reached the Keep just before nightfall. The tall mountain of rock loomed up over the trees and the heat suddenly washed over her. The vegetation grew thick here, with the Water and Fire fae in the same spot. A gentle cloud of steam often rolled across the clearing of the Keep and into the forest. The constant moisture caused an explosion of life. A thick carpet of bright green moss grew on every rock and tree. It was a sight to behold the wildlife that now congregated around this tropical-like place. A dozen tiny frogs sprang away from her as Kaoru emerged from the trees. The fires were just going up as the sun was setting behind the distant mountain.

She entered in through one of the many side entrances and was greeted heartily by the guards. She made a beeline to the kitchens. Dinner was over but she was nearly attacked by the cooks and she found herself with clean hands and sitting at the servant’s table with a hot plate of food sitting in front of her. A bowl of crisp greens and a plate of steaming root vegetables made her feel almost human again.

“My Lady, I’m glad to see you didn’t stay out there for too long.” Milinda said. The matronly old cook slid her round form onto the bench across from her. “Look at you, you look pale. Are you well?”

Kaoru swallowed her mouthful of sweet glazed carrots and smiled at the old woman. She had been almost like a mother to her for all these years which was why she almost always took her meals in here with her and the staff instead of formal meals in the Hall. “Don’t worry Milinda.” She took her old wrinkled hand in hers. “Just a bit of adventure.”

“How’s the Snow People, my dear?”

“Well. On patrol. We don’t have to worry about Drow coming from that direction. But they are coming from somewhere.”

“Oh dear.” Milinda weaved a holy water symbol across her chest. “Don’t let them come here.”

Kaoru patted her hand before returning to her meal. “The Keep is a target to be sure. Even more so now that the Fire’s set up their forges here. The Drow would love to have this place. But it would be suicide for them to try and take it without a massive army. And a massive army can’t sneak into the valley.”

“Still.” The head cook gave a shiver. “Makes me quake just thinkin’ about it.” She gave a scowl. “Those foolish Fire Fae…They’ve been causing nothing but trouble.”

“They are not for you to worry about, Milinda.”

… . . …

The Keep was blissfully cool deep inside but right now Kaoru found herself in the sweltering foundries of the Fires. The heat here was almost oppressive. It was dark, the stone ceiling and part of the walls were covered in black soot. The wall sconces were eclipsed by the searing light of the foundries. The constant banging and beating of metal into weapons was deafening. Why was she even here?

Because she was hunting for her younger cousin Misao. The Water fae had become enamored with the foundries as of late and Kaoru had a suspicion as to why. After a few more minutes of hunting the maze of tunnels, dodging massive Fire Men she finally found the Water Fae peaking around a doorway.

“There you are!” Kaoru marched up behind her and yanked on her braid.

Misao yelped and scrambled back from the door. “Kaoru? What are you doing back already? I thought you were going to be gone all week? Gezz don’t sneak up on me like that, by the Gods.”

Kaoru eyed her cousin. “You’re looking at him again, aren’t you?”

Misao blushed as red as her kimono.

Kaoru moved to glance around the doorway and quickly found what had attracted her cousin’s attention so. A massive man, a hybrid fae that failed to take after his mother or his father but took after both. He was an Earth and Fire fae like many of the blacksmiths here. He was naked from the waist up and was a wall of muscles from the constant hard work. At the moment he was working the bellows with one hand while he turned a sword in the making with the other. The metal was glowing white hot before he took a hammer to it. His face was stern, his skin bronzed and his eyes hard.

“What was his name again?” Kaoru asked.

“Aoshi Shinomori.” Misao whispered as if in a dream.

“He…looks a bit mean,” Kaoru confessed.

“I know.” Misao sighed with a smile. “He makes such beautiful weapons.”

“Well, Earth and Fire…” Kaoru said with a shrug. She couldn’t lie, the hybrid was stunning to look at but she meant it when she said he looked scary and mean. His jaw was set, his mouth a hard line and his eyes far too intense. “So what’s been going on in the few days I’ve been gone?”

Misao finally forced herself to walk away from the door and the two cousins linked arms and made their way out of the foundries. “Chou is stirring the pot again. Now he’s teamed up with a high position Fire named Shishio and Nori.”

Kaoru paused, earning them a smothered curse from a blacksmith that almost slammed into the back of them.

“My Ladies.” The blacksmith hardly managed to sound authentic as he slid past them.

“You mean Chou, the brat who hated me all this time for being married to a Fire and allowing them to come into the Keep is pairing up with a Fire himself?”

“I don’t know what’s going on with him.” Misao said with a wave of her hand and they continued out of the Fire’s territory.

… . . …

Kaoru worked into the night to make her rounds through the keep. A chat with the guards told that there were no sight of any Drow but that a new group of Fire and Earth Fae had come that afternoon. They were running out of room in the Keep…and Kaoru knew the Fire were pressing to expand the foundries to help keep the ever-growing army armed. Kaoru crawled into bed with her mind swirling with thoughts. She didn’t want the Fire’s to take over the Keep. Their water was pure and it helped to create the most wonderful weapons, but it was coming at a price the way the Water fae saw it. Pollution and so many trees being cut to feed the foundries. But Fire’s were destroyers by nature. With the Earth Fae here it helped to keep the forest strong with new trees to quickly grow and replace those being cut.

But this place was a place for Water Fae first and foremost. Many came here to heal. They had their own special part of the Keep where they could be kept calm and quiet as they took as much time as they needed to heal. They didn’t need to be surrounded by blacksmiths making weapons of war. She wasn’t sure what to do. The run-in with the Drow yesterday only proved that they were coming, and Kaoru wanted to make sure they were well armed for battle as much as the next Fire…but the Keep was the pride and joy of her father. Heaving a sigh at her troubled thoughts, she turned her mind to her prayers.

“As the land fills with darkness
And those around me sleep
May angels and faeries watch over me
And The Lady bring me peace….”

She then listed all her blessings that day and thanked the Forest God for sheltering her from harm for the rest of her travels. But still her spirit wouldn't rest.

Kaoru tossed and turned and finally settled on thinking about the Fire that had suddenly changed her life. There was still soreness in her hips and thighs from their joining. Kaoru closed her eyes and pictured his large purple eyes and that wild mane of crazy red hair. She tried to recall his voice and the strange way he had of talking. Why couldn’t the other Fire’s be like him?

True he was just as devastating as the rest of them. That battle with the Drow proved that he was extremely deadly. He said he was in the military so the weapons they made here could go to other men just like him. Kaoru growled and flipped violently in her bed. It was going to be a long night.

… . . …

“You look like Hell.” Misao said.

Kaoru glared over at her cousin. “Thanks…I didn’t sleep much.” She didn’t sleep at all. Not with all the things she had to deal with churning in her mind. She finally dozed off early in the morning. She would have given anything to sleep in, but as Mistress of the Keep she had to get up and get to work. In such a state she could feel the effects of the poison still in her body. She felt dizzy and lethargic but she had to stay in control. If she showed any sort of weakness now with the Fire’s pressing to move further into the Keep, they could see it as their chance. She dragged herself up with the sun and went to see the healers. She didn't talk about the wound on her wrist, which was becoming slightly painful, but instead requested treatment to prevent pregnancy. She didn't worry about judgment or word getting out, the healers were professionals, they cared less about drama and more about caring for their charges. The healer nodded and promised to have the mixture ready in a few hours.

An hour later Kaoru found herself in the kitchens. She picked at her food, too lost in thought and tired to really want to eat. A group of white-clad servers rushed back in from delivering breakfast to the Keep for everyone to take part in. Milinda rushed in with them and hurried over to them.

“M’lady.” She said in a hushed and breathless voice. “M’Lady, you need to go to the dining room, there’s trouble starting.”

Kaoru scrambled up from the bench and thanked the old woman before she and Misao lifted their Kimonos and rushed from the kitchen. They rushed down one long hallway that opened up to a massive dining room. There were enough tables and benches here to feed a few hundred people at a time and at the moment it was quite full, but many seemed to be ignoring the breakfast that was set up for them. Kaoru slowed and smoothed her kimono and gave her hair a reassuring pat. The room was glowing from the morning light streaming in from the massive windows on the east wall.

“It’s high time the rightful owners of the Keep take over!” said a thunderous voice in the middle of the crowd. A cheer went up from much of the crowd while many others hissed in spite. Kaoru knew her own people were mingled within and they were dangerously outnumbered. Kaoru had to get this under control before a fight broke out. A simple treaty written ten years ago wouldn’t stop this group, they were far too different.

“And just who would that be?” Kaoru asked in a loud voice. The men in front of her instantly parted and Kaoru made her way into the dining room. She was greeted with a great many ‘Morning, Lady Kaoru’ and a few too many condescending half bows. But she ignored them until she reached the center of the room where she found a tall thin Fire Fae standing on one of the many benches.

“My Lady.” The man said with a deep bow and a grin on his face. “I see you’ve returned from your explorations.”

“That’s Shishio.” Misao hissed in a bare whisper at her side.

“And just who would that be?” Kaoru repeated, her hand clasped in front of her, looking much like the stern yet lovely young Mistress she needed to be.

“The Fires,” Shishio said, his smile growing as the crowd agreed.

There was movement and Kaoru spied a few of her guards pressing forward. “Why would you think the Keep rightfully belongs to the Fire Clan?” Kaoru asked, keeping her voice calm as she moved closer.

“Because our Master is a Fire and being that he is not here, we should have a fellow Fire take his place!” At this, the crowd exploded in agreement, swords unsheathed and waved in the air. The heat in the room was quickly elevating and Kaoru fought to keep from rubbing the sweat from her forehead.

“There’s no need for that.” Said a voice. Kaoru, Shishio and the crowd turned to find a tall Earth fae lounging on one of the benches enjoying his breakfast.

“Oh, why is that?” Shishio asked.

“Because the Master of the Keep is on his way as we speak.” He said as he took a bite out of a chunk of bread.

Rage erupted from more of the crowd and Kaoru saw that it was coming from more of her people who had pressed in to help protect her. She was shocked to hear that her husband was finally on his way and the horror that she might have to face her sudden lack of virginity much, much sooner than she had thought. But if she didn’t settle this down now, her husband would arrive to find the Keep at war and she would be damned if she would let him think she couldn’t control without a man. She held her face in careful indifference so she would show no outward sign of her fear.

… . . …

Kenshin made his way through the well-guarded entrance of the Keep. They were surprised to see their Master come in on foot but said nothing except to welcome him. But Kenshin could easily see the Water guards were not pleased to see him. Sano or someone else in his group must have described him on the way in, as they knew who he was immediately. They were of average height and build, their armor was enameled with ocean blue and silver colors. It appeared to be many overlapping scales of metal, like the scales of a fish. When they moved, the blues hues shimmered in the light, like the reflection of sunlight on the water.

His own guards were among them. Though their numbers were far smaller. It was easy to pick them out. They were slightly shorter, but of a far larger build. Over their red and orange uniform was mat gray metal armor. They held crossbows and swords while the Water carried swords and spears. House banners hung across the rock of the Keep were of icy white-blue fields with the Keep outline in deep blue. The guards wore this symbol on their armor. However, Kenshin noted, that the Fire guards wore many different kinds of symbols from the many various houses they had been sent from. He didn't know if he liked this separation.

With a sigh, Kenshin made his way deeper into the rocky Keep. It was more like a castle than a cave, thankfully. Yet, even so, Kenshin could feel the tons of rock over his head. He thought to catch the next guard for directions but it wasn’t long before a great deal of noise lead him to a large room where it seemed half the Keep’s occupants were gathering. A hand reached out at grabbed him roughly and Kenshin jerked around to find Aoshi beside him.

“It’s about time you decided to show yourself here.” He said.

“Nice to see you again too.” Kenshin returned. “What’s going on?”

“Someone is challenging your wife.” He said simply.

Although he didn’t much care for his child-bride the fact that someone would dare go against his wife and Mistress of the Keep made him bristle. But around him Water and Fire fae were starting to clash, Kenshin had to get it under control. But just as he was about to announce his arrival, a voice as clear as a bell rang out over the shouts

“My people! Calm down.” She cried and almost at once the crowd hushed. “Yes, you are my people, all of you. Don’t be deceived that we are still divided, for though we are different, we are kin and we cannot fight among ourselves if we want this Keep to run smoothly.”

Kenshin slowly pushed forward, the people around him were too distracted by the woman to notice him.

“I ain’t gonna let a Water Female tell me what to do!” cried a random voice in the crowd and soon a few more joined in.

Kenshin reached the edge of the clearing and found himself gazing up at the little Water creature he had saved a day ago standing on the table beside a Fire who was standing on a bench. Yes her hair was perfect, her Kimono rich and immaculate but it was her,…it was her.

“You won’t have to!” Kenshin called. “Your Lord is here.”

… . . …

Kaoru turned to the call and nearly staggered as she saw the blood-red hair of the Fire Stranger. Him! At first, her mind went reeling that her husband had finally arrived but she was blindsided by the fact that her stranger walked from the crowd. He was Kenshin Himura? Her husband? But how could that be? He gazed at her with hard narrow eyes full of suspicion. He was obviously not happy with her at all. Obviously. The room started to spin and her carefully constructed mask slipped.

“And I do not approve of anyone challenging my wife for this Keep. She is your Mistress and while I’m gone you answer and obey her, do you all understand?” he barked as if he were speaking to troops. A wave of ‘Yes sir’s' went up and the crowd slowly started to disperse. Shishio stepped down from the bench and vanished with the rest of Fires as they turned back to their meal.

Kaoru’s brain refused to work. How could this happen? Her Husband had yellow eyes, not purple and he was taller…wasn’t he? But many men were already greeting him, they knew him…he was Kenshin Himura. His piercing eyes never wavered from her, as if he was tacking her to the spot until he reached her. Finally, he made it to the table she was standing on.

“Greetings, my dear wife.”

Kaoru opened her mouth to answer, but the heat and the shock and the weakness was just too much for her body and her vision tunneled and went black.