Monday, March 30, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 18.3 - Escalation

The bruising had deepened a few shades of purple, but the swelling had gone down. There was a full length mirror in Bromm's room, affording a view of the damage. I could imagine him standing up here, adjusting his holsters in the mirror, pulling his guns repeatedly. I smiled at the thought, there was a flair and romance to the whole thing. I could even see why Robyn herself was drawn to it. They were, after all, two facets of the same jewel.

Silah was propped up on the bed on one elbow, watching me go through my morning preparations, with a subtle smile on her face. She had been mostly silent, albeit looking content even with whatever pangs she was feeling.

It was relatively late and the sun was peering over the hillside to the East. I figured I'd catch some hell from it. I didn't care. I had slept more soundly than I had in weeks and was in a dazed bliss, feeling more content than I could scarcely recall. The ever present Silah, which seemed initially a burden to my solitary leanings, had given me a feeling of well-being that I had never had before.

I caught her look in the mirror and smiled at her.

"It looks worse." She said with a matter of fact tone.

"Bruises always look worse before they look better." I shrugged, my smile turning to a grimace.

"Well, it looks bad. Maybe we should just stay here." She said with a smile, rolling on her back and stretching, pulling her clothes tight against her shapely form.

Seeing her and hearing the nuanced invitation sent my heart into a flurry. I suddenly felt uneasy and started to fidget.

"Oh relax." She cooed, "We've got business, right? Maybe Danin can help with all that, too."

She wagged her fingers at me.

"It hurts me just looking at it." She gave me a sour look.

I closed my eyes and breathed deep, feeling the anxiety subside. It was terrifying how well she could read me and she didn't even have to lay a hand on me for insight.

She stood and moved to the window and looked out toward the boats.

"We might want to get out there." She said pensively.

"And here I was thinking of taking you up on the offer."

She stifled a laugh.

"You? I doubt there's a more prudish brute out there," She said through a giggle.

"Now you're just being hurtful." I turned toward her and gave her a scathing look.

"Ah, come here."

She deliberately walked toward me while I didn't move from where I stood. She moved in and entwined her arms around me.

"But, you're my prude." She said silkily, tracing her fingers lazily up my back.

I blushed and my shoulders tensed. She patted my back at my reaction.

"Yes. There he is." She giggled again, this time, into my chest.

She stepped back, still with a grin looking almost drunk.

"I'm not sure what's gotten into me," she said, looking at me hungrily.

I was pretty sure I knew, as it was becoming clearer to me that her appetites were increasing. My body ached for her, and, at that moment there was little more I wanted. I was afraid, though. And not in this state.

Silah was reading my face with a mixture of amusement and desire. She began to move in close reaching her arms out again. I put my hand on her shoulder and held her back. She pressed, but then stopped, dropping her arms, looking defeated.

"I want to. By the gods, I do. But not like this. Not right now." I spoke softly to her.

A pit in my stomach opened and I ached as I watched the moment slip away. I took my hand from her shoulder and put it gently on her face and tilted her chin up to me.

"It's for the best. You'd likely do more damage to me anyway."

I grinned at her and gave her a peck on the cheek. She looked stunned, and touched her cheek where I had kissed her. I turned back to the mirror.

"Back to business, right? I said, matter of factly, while putting my last clean undershirt on and buckling my breastplate into place.

"Right." She said seeming very very far away.

I turned back and she was still standing there with her hand to her cheek.

"Thank you." She said with a small voice.

Silah seemed to come back to her old self, looking at me with a sly smile. Then, unexpectedly, she leapt up and put her arms around my neck, giving me a firm kiss full on the mouth. The shock of it, sent me reeling. I felt whatever condition those ribs were in pop loose then realign, which made me shudder with pain. She released and dropped to the floor, suddenly giddy.

"Yes, business! Let's get to that." She stood with purpose and strode smoothly to the door opening it and disappearing into the hallway, leaving me in a daze. I took a deep, trembling breath, then winced again. Then, still dazed, I looked around the room making sure I hadn't left anything—besides my sanity—behind.

We met down at the boat. Silah stood again on the side of the boat and Beidrick graciously helped her aboard.

After last night, there was a mutual respect between the lot of us. Money was spent on both sides, his and mine. And, as the crowds died down, Silah invited herself to the table and faced off with both Beidrick and myself. She soundly beat both of us just by locking her arm and waiting us out until we got tired. Beidrick's eyes widened much like they did when she effortlessly placed the mast.

As he parted from The Sea Witch, he leaned over to me with wide eyes, as Silah was distracted.

"She's yours, mate. I'd not dare get entangled with a woman who could tear me in half that easily."

It definitely wasn't as true for me. A tender flower would wither in the world I lived in, and she matched me, step for step. Exceeding me in many ways. But, where her seeming immortality made it easy for her to also be graceful and lady-like. Unfortunately for her, I knew no other way to live, but she was doing her best to fix that.

The ship hands were up and about. The younger one, Finn, was doing lighter work. They were moving more efficiently over the ship than their bumbling selves just from the previous day. There were six barrels of Shatterhammer Ale strapped to the inside of the hull.

Floki was already in place, the wolf he had been befriending was on the boat with him. I eyed the beast.

"It's safe, right?" I asked, looking between the two of them.

"Sure. He'll be fine. Just relax, the more anxious you are the more anxious he'll be." He said sternly.

"Oh, I saw Rana picking up some supplies. She said hello." Floki continued.

He seemed to be more settled on the boat, perhaps it was because of the wolf keeping him company?

"Is she well?" I asked.

"She seems to be doing well on the ranch. Cranky Dwarf or no, she's managed well. There's a new ranger there with more experience, but they kept her as the one calling the shots." He nodded as he mentioned it, pleased for his sister, "It's good to see her moving up in the world."

I nodded, smiling. Rana was a good person. She had a heart of gold, but could also match skills with any of the scouts I'd worked with during the war. She and Floki had certainly come into their own.

There was a lull in the conversation, and I looked around. Beidrick was looking into the distance with something of a snarl.

"We're supposed to be underway!"

"We weren't last?" I said, surprised.

I glanced around realizing Bromm wasn't there. Then looked toward Silah, who wasn't paying attention, looking out over the water toward the sunrise.

"Bromm disappeared with that woman of his." Beidrick scowled.

I cringed at the words. I knew better than to tell Beidrick he ought not repeat that to Robyn, because he likely would then be obligated to. As, it seemed, he was also taking a page from Bromm's book of unnecessary conflict.

Floki caught sight of him and pointed. He was walking arm-in-arm with Robyn down from far beyond The Sea Witch. I raised an eyebrow at the sight. This was the earliest I'd ever seen Robyn. Earliest, and most sober, even. I remembered looking at her mulling over her last drink. A lot of things were going to change in the coming weeks. She was wearing her usual finery, but it was much more flattering when she wasn't bellied up to a bar.

"Finally!" Beidrick bellowed over the bow, "Get on board before I put you to work! We're lucky to get to Dowry before sundown, if that!"

Bromm looked thoughtful and completely unperturbed by Beidrick's outburst. He turned to Robyn and they spoke low as a parting. She turned heel with a bit of flourish and walked back up the dock.

"Looks like a fine time to set sail right about ... now." Bromm said as he stepped on board with his last word. There was an air of whimsy to Bromm's attitude. Usually, Bromm would bark right back. His coolness toward his friend disarmed Beidrick enough to only make him grumble under his breath and not much more.

Sailing was uneventful. Beidrick fought a bit more with the winds then he had to before. It dampened his mood by degrees. The tousled boys received the brunt of his displeasure, to their chagrin. I had decided early that I was going to take the opportunity to rest on the way there, sleeping where permitted. Silah had moved to the back, again, settling in with Beidrick who, even after what he said about her tearing him apart, continued to outclass me in flattery.

The sun rose and sunk while we sailed. The sea air had been cool, but the sun beat everyone down at the height of midday. The two boys were exhausted. Tad had shouldered most of the work while Finn began to look ill from both the stress of the journey and his own wounds as the day wore on.

Boredom had set in for Silah as dusk deepened. It was starting to get dark on the boat. She was fidgeting on the bench beside where I was laying. I reached over and clasped a hand around Silah's leg, just above the ankle. She looked down, her small brow furrowed.

"What?" Her voice reverberated dramatically in my head, annoyed, anxious, or discontent. It may have been all three at once, I couldn't tell.

I remained silent, smiling up at her.

"What?" She looked down, now speaking aloud, her eyes menacing.

Just seeing what's going on in there.

I grinned at the turn about and closed my eyes. She made a strangled noise and snarled down at me.

"I'm starving! How do you exist like this? In this constant hungry, feeding, and then hungry again cycle. It's deplorable. It's torture." She said it in the echoing voice of her huge dark visage in my mind. I could see her massive armored torso looming over me as if I stood on a stage in front of her at shoulder level. She was stomping back and forth, aggravated and being intimidating. I smiled widely at the hulking form, even while thinking better of it.

This has had to have happened before.

"If memory serves—which, no, it does not—you're the first time I've ever felt this… this consumed feeling." She stopped, glaring down at me, putting her massive hands on the platform on either side of me. I looked up at her in my mind's eye.

Soon. I'll make it right soon enough.

"We could have gone up that deathtrap of a mine you told me about. There seems to be plenty up there to contend with." She said, casting in a snide undertone.

Hey now. I said we'd work it out. I'm on your side.

Her anger subsided. Her form shrunk quickly and she moved up to me as her normal Silah self, but taller so we could see eye to eye. Her eyes glittered and glowed as they did in her larger form, but in her current form, it was more endearing than intimidating. She embraced me, and I could feel her arms wrap around me, even as I lay on the deck of the ship.

She pulled back, looking me in the eyes, her own expression unreadable. Then she leaned forward and kissed me. I stiffened, trembling, and then, after a moment, relaxed and kissed her back. The experience was surreal, feeling my body laying on a boat with the rolling motion of the water, but also standing in the darkness of space in my own mind, being kissed passionately by this lovely, and dangerous, woman. My heart was racing with the experience and I opened my eyes in an effort to deal with the jarring realities.

She was looking down at me. The darkness had all but consumed us on the seas, but I could see her face clearly, framed in her short dark hair, as she looked down at me smiling.

"I know you're on my side," she said it, both as the visage and from her own mouth as she looked down on me, "And I have never felt so loved because of it."

(Get to know Akeron)

Hakaar - Chronicle 18.2 - Portents

There was still some light left as we moved into the Hlofreden harbor. The remainder of the trip had been uneventful. I had even been able to fall asleep, being woken at moments of bone grinding discomfort or a barked order from Beidrick. Captain Beidrick.

Silah was there, at times, watching over me. I felt a burden to her, being a mere shadow of the great men she had been wielded by; fragile by comparison. Yet, she looked down on me kindly as I lay on the boat. She looked unsettled, anxious. She seemed to fret in moments where she didn't think she was being observed. It set me to wondering.

The boat glided into place in Beidrick's slip, bumping against the dock in Hlofreden. Beidrick hopped over to the dock as Tad tossed the mooring ropes to him. Floki was off the boat quickly, watching the process of preparing the boat for the night from the stability of the dock. Bromm gathered the bags of live crabs while I gathered the massive legs and claws, bringing them ashore.

"I'll find someone who can make a nice seafood gumbo of that." He nodded at the piles we had deposited on the dock. He quickly moved down the dock rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

Moments later, he flagged us toward him, nodding at the sacks. We dropped them at the foot of a weathered old man outside of a dockside shanty that had a crude sign and a magnificent low and wide potbelly stove roaring away with a near boiling cauldron full of water set atop it.

The man's eyes widened at the catch as we dropped the massive legs and claws at his feet among the squirming bags of the relatively smaller horseshoe crabs. Coins exchanged hands, Beidrick getting a decent return from the haul. The man's near toothless face beamed as he carefully extracted the meat from the massive claws in an attempt to keep from damaging them.

"We'll be eating well tonight!" Beidrick clapped Bromm and Floki on the back as we walked back to the boat. Silah curled around my arm as we moved back, she was attempting to support me.

"No need. It hurts, but I'll manage." I looked down at her.

She smiled with a pained expression and then looked up at me with a strange, almost urgent, look on her face.

"I'm … hungry? I don't remember ever feeling like this." She clutched at my arm, squeezing it, lending weight to her words.

I squinted at her, thinking of the food that was being prepared, but knowing better by what she meant. Her lending me the harvested life force had taken a toll on her and I was hardly in a position to accomodate. She leaned against me as we continued our walk behind the others.

The skies were turning a deep red when the food was delivered, we all ate, overlooking the bay, watching the calming seas as an easy breeze pushed the low clouds along. I hadn't been much for seafood, with what little I had had in my life. But with a dry crust of bread, the salty and rich gravy, and the plump meaty portions of that large crab, the meal was more than satisfying for me.

I looked at the others, feeling content and at peace, though still worried. Silah seemed to be holding what she felt close as she smiled and talked to the others while she consumed gratuitous amounts of the seafood gumbo. If she was feeling hungry and couldn't sate it, I wasn't surprised by her ravenousness. I sighed, feeling I had wronged her by asking too much.

I grimaced at the thought and put down my empty bowl.

"Bromm, we have business. Shall we?" I lifted my undershirt wiped my mouth. It needed to be washed anyway, new bloodstains and the smell of the sea saturated everything I wore. I'm sure that I looked a pulpy mess above and beyond the labored breathing and grinding ache in my side.

Beidrick turned to the boys and began to gesture toward the ship, pointing here and there. Silah slurped down the remainder of her bowl and stood to join us. This may have been her third, I wasn't sure. I held my arm out to her and she took it absently, looking introspective. We started our walk to The Sea Witch.

As we neared the front door, Floki announced that he was heading off to check in on his homestead and perhaps his sister, if she was there. He moved out, disappearing into the darkening red shadow that had started to consume the city.

Bromm turned to Beidrick, Silah, and I.

"We should check on the brewery before we settle in."

I nodded; Beidrick clapped his hands together and rubbed them.

"Now that's what I'm talking about!" He exclaimed, which prompted a grimace from Bromm.

"This is business. We've got to get some barrels out to Dowry."

Beidrick shrugged, looking disappointed, "But you're paying me for transport?"

"Yes!" Bromm looked exasperated, "What do you take me for?"

"Well, you are your dad's son." Beidrick's words prompted a warning glare from Bromm, which quieted him down.

I gave an amused look to Silah, who was still distracted—focused internally.

The brewery door was ajar when we got there. Bromm immediately pulled out a pistol, and I looked to Silah, who had remained within arms reach. Just inside the door there were piles of supplies on a rolling cart. Bromm peered into the darkness of the warehouse.

"Anyone here?" He called out, pistol pointing up, ready to aim.

"What? Yes? Who is it?" It was the voice of Erland.

Though our initial run in with Erland was less than pleasant, he was an excellent manager, and, sometimes, enforcer. He moved to Bromm's employ after Richter Holdings purchased the Shatterhammer brewery. Bromm offered him a job and he had been loyal ever since. Although, I wasn't sure that what we were seeing here was loyalty.

"Bromm. What are these barrels doing here?" He called out the question with a tenuous edge.

"Those? Yes." He moved into view looking weary, "The storage—"

He made a muffled grunt and put his hands up when he saw Bromm's pistol drawn. Bromm immediately holstered it.

"You can never be too careful." Bromm said simply. "So, what happened with the storage."

Erland took a moment to overcome the shock to his system, eyeing the lot of us with a new level of unease.

"Yes, the storage. There was another break in. Blew the doors clean off, they can't even find them! Everything was untouched, though, so we brought it down here as soon as possible. It took all day." He mopped at a sweaty brow smearing dust and dirt from the effort.

Bromm nodded, looking impressed.

"We should talk about what you're getting paid."

Erland gave him a sidelong look, eyebrow raised, "Sir?"

"I appreciate a man with initiative. You've more than proven yourself." Bromm said, nodding appreciatively.

Erland smiled, unsure how to take such a direct compliment.

"Well, thank you, sir. Just doing my job." Erland nodded, still smiling.

"What can you tell me about the break in?" I asked the question a little too forcefully, feeling the tension rise in me.

The old mine shafts behind the storage areas were deep and held some incredibly old secrets. There is a portion of the mine that touched an ancient portal. Ancient, because, the Dwarves themselves didn't seem to know what they had stumbled into. One of the survivors wandered around town babbling to himself to this day, his mind burned by what he saw there.

It caught Erland off guard.

"It looked like something getting out more than something getting in. There was a hole in the back of the storage, but I didn't investigate. The city wouldn't post any guards there, so we had to get the storage out as soon as possible." Erland stammered.

"No. What got out? Did anyone see it?"

"It?" He looked concerned, "What do you mean it?"

I shook my head, getting nowhere with the line of questions. I turned to Bromm.

"We might want to look into this sooner rather than later. There could be some real trouble in the city."

"Wha...?" Erland's concern turned to worry.

Bromm looked at me, "Have you seen yourself, man? You look like death warmed over. I doubt you'll want to be stickin' your neck out just yet. It'll keep. We'll get to it soon enough."

His tone smoothed me out, bringing things into perspective. I calmed down, then looked at Silah. Her brow was furrowed wondering what had gotten into me. I nodded to her. I'd explain to her on the way back.

Erland quieted, but then turned back to us, "If you want me to help, you're going to have to let me know what we're up against."

"Yes. Not a doubt. But we shouldn't jump to any conclusions, just make sure business is wrapped up with whatever was in storage, and then keep your distance for now." Bromm said evenly, "We'll investigate further when we get back."

"Easy enough, this is the last of it." Erland motioned to the stack just inside the doorway.

"Then there shouldn't be any other problems. You've done good work today, Erland." Bromm clapped him on the shoulder. "One more thing, if I may. The current batch. How it is coming along?"

"Very well, we should be able to get it in casks by first light." Erland was pleased to report.

"I'll have someone come and pick them up, then." Bromm nodded and we moved back through the open door.

We started making our way back to The Sea Witch. Silah moved up to me, cradling my arm as we walked.

"What's this about?" She slid into my head immediately.

I sighed, arranging my thoughts in order to be coherent.

Before Bromm and Sig bought the place, there was a break in at the storage he was talking about, but nothing was stolen. It had actually gone unnoticed until something, maybe a wind spirit, attacked and nearly killed the guards that were posted there by the city. After that, it was locked up tight until we went in to investigate.

Knowing she could see what was in my mind, I thought on the structure of the mine, the central shaft and the rickety wooden platforms. The footprints from the person who had broken in earlier. The large black widow that nearly killed me and thousands of large insects eating the fungi off the walls. The blustery wind spirit that we barely contained. The droves of spiders in the side hallway that we sealed.

I could see her eyes watching the proceedings. I was on the stage and her massive presence lingered, eyes glittering while observing my visual recounting.

Then I moved on to the final descent into the bottom with the pumps being handled by Rana. Then fighting off the massive, slimy bottom-feeding creature with the paralyzing poison. I quivered at the memory, knowing how close I came to falling to that creature. Then the sunken hallways and the cart full of raw gold ore.

And then, I recalled the other direction where Bromm, Danin, and I found the bright portal at the end of another sunken tunnel, this one ending at a bright portal. Moving through the portal and encountering the tentacled creature that kept repeating "Kalipot". Where I was frozen in fear as the being advanced, reaching out. Bromm pushed us back through the portal and we returned to the group shaken.

I shook myself from the memories. Still seeing her visage, weighing what she had seen.

There is so much terror that could come from that hole in the ground.

She remained silent, her face at my side reflecting the pensive gaze of her massive visage.

I had lost track of my feet. We were almost already to The Sea Witch. Bromm and Beidrick were heartily engaged in conversation. Beidrick continued on to talk to his boys about picking up the six barrels that Erland was planning on preparing for shipment.

We pressed through the door to The Sea Witch. I felt it again, that settled feeling of coming home. All the usual fixtures were there: Macaulay tending bar, Faolan strumming away, and Robyn, at her usual place far down the bar, sitting alone. Well, not quite alone. A youngling was there, trying to entreat her for whatever purpose. Him thinking it would be a good idea was his first mistake. The bored look and her fidgeting was apparent. Bromm nodded her direction and settled in closer to his brother the bartender.

Behind me, Beidrick entered moments later and called out to Macaulay as he walked through the door.

"A round for my friends, here, and keep them coming!"

"Oh, you don't need to do that." Bromm grinned, "We're practically paying ourselves by drinking here."

Beidrick looked a little hurt.

"Why can't I buy my friends some drinks?"

"By all means!" Bromm did a sweeping gesture to the bar and Macaulay, "Let the gentleman buy us drinks."

Macaulay grimaced and leaned in toward Bromm, whispering something in his ear. Bromm's expression didn't change other than him nodding at the exchange. I had sat just long enough to get one of the Shatterhammer ales, I looked toward Silah and tapped Bromm on the shoulder.

I was feeling inordinately sober. I drained one of the ales almost immediately to take the edge off of the evening, then asked for another.

"I'm going to go talk to her." I said low to both of them, taking my refreshed ale from the table.

Silah held her seat and gave me a mildly perturbed look. Beidrick saw his opportunity, and quickly replaced me at the bar facing Silah. As I walked away, I could hear banter starting between Macaulay, Bromm, and Beidrick.

I moved close to the young man trying to engage the ever aloof Robyn.

"Bugger off. Be somewhere else." I growled at the boy, feeling my loose ribs rattle with the malevolence.

He turned to protest with some fire, but I saw his eyes widen as found himself in my shadow. He cowered slightly and eventually spoke, finding his voice.

"Yes, fine. I'm leaving." He stammered.

"Don't expect me to thank you." She patted the stool next to her and then looked me over, "Are you dealing death or taking it? It looks like you're closer to the losing side."

"Degrees of both." I said, facing forward to the bar, hiding the more swollen part of my face. "Got some excellent seafood for the trouble."

"You and the boys been away for a while. Is this thing with Beidrick and your girl new?" She peered at me sideways, keeping her ale mug close to her lips.

I looked back, seeing Beidrick cozying up to Silah and she responded in kind. Beidrick caught my eye and raised a mug in my direction. Silah's eyes glittered with a knowing look, rubbing salt in the wounds.

"You left her side, mate!" Beidrick said through a laugh.

I shook my head, feeling the heat rise up the back of my neck.

"You should have taken me up on what I suggested earlier." She said, turning forward with a smile, taking a sip.

I took a drink, then looked back at her.

"Heh, speaking of me having no money to speak of. We ran into someone looking for," I turned toward her, "someone fitting your description."

She looked annoyed.

"Don't make me shoo you off like you did to that one." She nodded to the young man who was still lurking in the growing crowd.

"I'm kidding, really." I said, realizing that I was pushing the edges of our friendship. I thought to smile, but remembered how that likely looked to others.

It was obvious that Robyn had problems trusting others and I had seen how she dealt with it. I cared for her, though. She was good people, even if overly aggressive at keeping others at arms length. If I hadn't tried to care for her when she was heavily wounded, I likely wouldn't have gotten a second word from her. I carefully pulled the parchment from my belt pouch and handed it to her.

"Does that description remind you of anyone? It sounded awfully familiar to me." I continued quickly, seeing her mood starting to sour further, "Do you know the Salamanders? They were posting these around Dowery. Bromm and I wanted to get here to warn you..."

"Wait, if… if I knew this person, let's say that you actually know who this person is. Wouldn't, say, a poor barbarian such as yourself want all the money they've listed here?" She turned to me and raised an eyebrow.

"Money is money. Good people are hard to find." She let out an involuntary snigger at the comment, but I continued, "Bromm and I care about what happens. I'd never make the decision for you, but I thought you should be informed so you could do what you will."

Bromm scooted back from the bar and approached, I stood offering him my seat and stood close to listen in for the moment.

Bromm's approach was much smoother, showing that he knew how to approach her far better than I did. He elaborated on the position of the Salamanders and how it seemed off, more like a bounty than a finder's fee.

"Perhaps it's time for me to return home."

She had a far away look in her eye with the words. There was a heavy feeling that an inescapable fate had caught up to her.

"You don't have to face this alone. We'd gladly stand by you." Bromm said, I nodded.

"Why would you want to? Whatever happens is only meant for me. But it is sweet of you to offer." She nodded to Bromm, eyes glistening.

The conversation turned more personal and I moved away, leaving them to talk in private.

I turned, back toward where Beidrick and Silah sat. He was very close, very friendly, talking and gesticulating. Silah's back was to me, but she was engaged, nodding her head. I remained reticent even with the aggravation gnawing away at the sight. Sure, Silah was bonded to me, but I wanted her to know that she wasn't mine.

Maybe… maybe, I need to reconsider.

My lip curled at the thought. I remembered Robyn's offer of advice. I would love some insight into the female mind. I was regretful with the thought, but then an idea came to mind. I waited for a lull in their conversation and came up beside them.

"Beidrick. I'll make you a wager. Have you ever arm wrestled?"

He raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, but, " he looked me over, "isn't this a little stacked in your favor?"

"Always operate from a position of power. A wise person once said that to me." I said, looking to Silah with a smirk who looked back curiously at me, wanting to know what I was getting at, "Although, I'm not in very good shape right now which might even the odds a bit."

"You're on, muscles." Beidrick gave a wry smile, "What's the wager?"

"How about the privilege of buying that woman a drink." I nodded to Silah. "And, who knows, maybe even a chance to win her over?"

"Oooh," Silah crooned, steepling her hands together and putting them to her lips, "This is going to be fun!"

Her reaction settled it immediately. The room gathered around us as we settled in at one of the sturdy round tables.

"If you don't think it's fair, we can always choose another game." I said, nodding to him.

"I'll match you just fine, you'll see." He grinned at me from across the table as he sat, baring his arm, patting his flexed muscle, and placing aggressively.

I settled into the chair, giving enough room as to not crane my back and set my ribs grinding again. I grimaced as I slid into place.

"Oh, don't worry. I'll take it easy on you," Beidrick said through a smirk, noting the pain I was in. "M'lady? Are you thirsty?"

Silah's musical laughed seemed almost involuntary. His flattery was far beyond my own skill. I definitely had my work cut out for me.

The festivities started to fade a long while after dark and there was a lull as the crowd slowly departed. Being the gentleman he is, Bromm, offered his room to Silah and I. Taking a place by the fire in the common room. I passed by Robyn, she was almost always the last one to leave. She had a vacant stare, looking at the wall behind the bar. She looked back as we passed and I nodded to her. She nodded back with a slight smile, her eyes flitting between Silah and myself.

She turned forward again, the smile slipping from her lips. Her last ale was untouched, she looked into it, rolling the liquid around. Robyn always had something on her mind, but this sort of resigned feeling I was picking up from her was disconcerting. I didn't know her past, but I ached at what she saw in her future.

I opened the door to Bromm's room and stood aside for Silah to glide in. She was cheerful after the events of the night.

"How are you feeling?" I asked Silah while starting my nighttime ritual.

"Better, all of this attention… You boys know how to fight for a girl's affection." She had a wide grin.

I smiled, then winced as I took the cool wet towel and pressed it against the deepening bruise that covered almost my entire left side. This had normally been my shield side.I stripped to the waist, kicking off my boots. I took a deep breath with the effort, feeling the pain wasn't worth the effort of attempting to get clean. I began to settle onto the rug beside the bed, but Silah stopped me.

"I appreciate the gesture. It's a fitting end to the night, but you need this more than I do." She patted the bed, beckoning me over.

I laid back creakingly on the bed. It was too small, but there was no footboard, allowing me to hang my feet off the end comfortably.

Silah stood and walked over to shelf near the basin, pulling three more towels and getting them wet. She rolled one up and put it between my left arm and chest, then properly draped the other, unfurling it to let it cool, then laid it over my side. The remaining smaller towel she used to gently dab at my swollen cheek, and raw lips.

I closed my eyes, feeling my heartbeat from behind my eyelids as she sponged away some of the caked red with the damp cloth. She was unnaturally silent, which had been strange to get used to. She didn't need to breathe, after all, and rarely did except to speak. She extinguished the lamp light in the room and I felt myself slipping off to sleep with the weariness, but also from the comfort of the safe haven she had created. She moved under my right arm and snuggled in close, laying her hand on my chest, as I slipped into oblivion.

(Get to know Akeron)

Hakaar - Chronicle 18.1 - Red Sails

My heart raced at a gentle touch to my face.

"You wanted me to wake you at first light." Silah's voice coursed through my head, as my blood surged at being awoken.

I blinked twice and saw her face close to mine, honey-brown eyes glistening from the the pale pink sky that was just now coming through the window. Her eyes were calm, crinkled slightly at the edges from a sly smile. My heart surged again. I smiled in response, raising a hand to brush away her short dark brown from her cheek, then gently laid my immense hand on her face. My heart swelled with the exchange.

I took in my surroundings, feeling suddenly vulnerable. We had avoided Pike's and the dancing girls and returned to Butterwicks. Bromm and I had kept Beidrick from the festivities. It would have been quite unfair for us to participate. I pulled my hand back and moved to sit up, but she remained, unmoving keeping me in place.

"We have time." She whispered, "We'll get to the boat soon enough."

I was tense for a moment unsure of what she was saying, but her eyes became stern. I decided to take the advice and eventually allowed myself to relax. Silah moved under my arm and curled around my torso, laying her head on my chest. I caught my breath, feeling her warmth press against me. She raised her head from my chest and looked at me.

"Calmly, my beast." She said through a musical laugh and laid her head back down, listening to my heart beat.

I stared at the ceiling listening to the blood beating in my ears, watching the pinkish light turn more golden. I placed a hand to the small of her back, feeling anxious, but slowly letting that fade and enjoying her presence.

Just as the first rays of the sun were streaming through the window, she moved up and gave me a peck on the cheek.

"There. Much better. Yes? We're not always at war, soldier. We're allowed to live gracefully and relish comfort in those moments in between." She whisper breathily into my ear and stood. "Unfortunately, now we're going to be a little late."

She held out a hand down to me. I furrowed my brow at the gesture, but I reached up and took her hand anyway. She clamped down on my the meaty part of my hand and thumb. My eyes bulged and I grunted at her iron grip. She pulled me halfway to my feet with little effort, I then, awkwardly, had to get my legs under me to stand the rest of the way.

"Ouch." I rubbed my hand after stabilizing on my feet and gave her a hurt look.

She shot me a feigned pout and patted my arm clucking her tongue affectionately.

"You really don't know your own strength." I said, while moving through the room, putting on the breastplate, pulling the duster from the hook on the back of the door, and slinging my rucksack in place.

"I think I do." She paused, her eyes staying on me as I moved through the room. "Though, I may have misjudged yours."

"Ouch again. You're in a mood this morning." I rubbed at my still throbbing thumb.

"We're travelling again! Why wouldn't I be excited?"

"It's just business." I shrugged dismissively, feeling that it was much more than business.

She shot me a glare, "Who's in a mood this morning?"

I smirked and opened the door, bowing gracelessly, and motioning to it.

"M'lday? Shall we?"

She gave a small "hmph", lifting her chin defiantly. She took a stately pose and strode through the open door majestically. I looked around the room, assured that everything was in its place and locked the door behind me. Just outside of Butterwick's, a somewhat impatient Silah was waiting. I started to walk, but noted that she didn't move.

"You had a good thing going on back there. This whole M'lady bit. Why spoil things by not being a gentleman?" She folded her arms and looked at me dangerously.

I approached and held out my arm, bowing again, but this time with a more refined approach, feeling awkward in my poor man's armor escorting this stately woman. She twined her arm through mine, letting a subtle smile curl the corners of her mouth. She was completely unaffected by the cold. Her impossible warmth kept the chill at bay as we moved through the streets toward the docks.

The crispness of the air was punctuated by the bursts of wind bringing the fresh smell of the sea into the harbor. It had been an ever present musk that defined the Northern coast. It was strange to think it had been there by varying degrees ever since I stepped off of the Ethesia House platform on my way to Kellas House. It was even stranger that the smell was beginning to remind me of home.

I nodded silently to myself with the realization. Blustery, temperamental, and raining for weeks at a time, yet I was a newly adopted orphan by the North Coast. Silah patted my arm, looking up at me with an assuring smile and I nodded to her. I had become used to her way of poking through my thoughts. Perhaps she had become better at not calling it to my attention?

From a distance, I saw Beidrick standing midship, barking out orders and insults to two shaggy looking boys. A smile spread across Silah's face.

"Look who's a captain now?" She said to herself, untwining herself from my arm, moving down the dock, and stepping to the edge of the boat. I felt a twinge of jealousy as Beidrick approached her and took her outstretched hand, leading her into the boat. The boat tipped as she stepped on board, giving Beidrick a bit of a shock as she glided to a seat and settled in.

I moved aboard, carefully, watching Beidrick berate the shaggy youths. Floki had settled in uneasily, as did Bromm, sitting gingerly in the center of the boat. Floki had been interested in an overland trip, but Bromm and I had already set things in motion to make the trip by sea. Plus, telling Beidrick that we spoiled his night of fun just to recant would put him in a foul enough mood, at least he'd be making some money for his time and effort.

It was something to behold. Beidrick had a glimmer in his eyes looking out at sea then looking toward the two boys whom he had well in line. His words were sharp and they snapped to attention.

As preparations were getting underway and the youths, visibly quaking and showing no proper experience on a boat, muddled around with the tasks assigned to them. Beidrick came and sat next to Silah and I. And began telling a story, loud enough for everyone to hear, especially the new deckhands.

"These two, I tell ya. They said they wanted to make their ways in the world, get off their farm, sail the seas." He spoke with a bravado I had not seen from him. I couldn't help but smile at the transformation. The quaking youths were clearly under his spell.

He continued, "So, they say they have some goods they can give in exchange for training and they mention they've got a 'bug problem'." He looked toward one of the shaggy headed boys and raised his voice, "Hah! A bug problem?"

"A bug, as big as a damn horse, climbs out of the ground and that one there, Finn," He jabs a finger at the smaller one, "He tossed himself right into the jaws of the thing. And that other one, Tad, starts hitting the thing with his fists like he can do anything to it!"

Silah was enraptured with the story and I had a wide smile on my face, as much from the reaction of the timid boys as Beidrick's retelling of it.

"I pull out my hammer." He grasped at his waist, where this hammer with a hooked end was currently slung and he held it aloft. I had to think for a moment, last I saw him, I swore that he'd been sporting a longsword before now.

"I pull this out and start raining blows on the thing until it stops moving. The boy over there was bloodied up pretty good, but they got themselves healing on their own dime." He leaned back, looking over his shoulder toward the cowering boys, "I can't say it's a good tactic to stay alive, mind you. Bloody foolish, but it gave me time to do the critter in."

"Heh, a bug problem. Masters of the obvious, these two." He jerked a thumb their direction. He stood, shaking his head, and moved in to give them a new set of instructions.

The sails unfurled and the ropes went taut. Beidrick had the boys reposition the sail as he moved back to the till. He shouted to bring the anchor up and the two boys turned a crank in turn until the boat eased back from the berth out into open water. Floki and Bromm looked considerably more uncomfortable as there was water on all sides. Beidrick used the backward momentum to swing the boat around.

"Mind the sail, lads." The broadcloth took hold of the wind easily.

Beidrick was able to catch the wind at a steep angle moving North. There was a wide smile on his face as he settled in, leaning against the till. The sun began to warm the deck. There were bright, crisp skies and a fair wind from the Northwest as we moved from the harbor.

Floki and Bromm took turns at being the very picture of discomfort. Silah saw it as an opportunity and started to move about the ship, engaging Bromm first.

"I don't mind the sea, it just doesn't mix well with powder." I overheard him say as part of their conversation.

It was an understandable discomfort. His livelihood was at stake out on the open water. However, as a juxtapose to his concern, out in the bay was a large ship from the Princess's own navy. A row of cannons were brought to bear North against the open sea. The blasts rolled over the bay and echoed off of the bluff. It was a ringing counterpoint to Bromm's concerns. He smiled as the sound rolled over him.

"But, there... that's the sound of money." He smiled placidly while the bright sun lit his face. He seemed to relax, feeling more assured.

Floki, on the other hand, still looked wary. I rolled over onto my back on the bench, watching the wispy clouds against the bright blue sky. Feeling the boat rolling on the waves below me.

At around the time the sun had passed its zenith,  Beidrick announced that we had rounded the horn. As he eased the boat around, the sunlight shifted from our left to now slightly behind us. I had moved under the benches, keeping the sun off of my face. Silah had moved back to give Beidrick company. He was no longer manning the till, but keeping a watchful eye on an unkempt boy who he had tasked with it. That boy, Tad, was feeling proud of himself, for the brief moments that Beidrick would let him.

"Sails!" Beidrick announced. I glanced back toward Beidrick and Silah from the hollow under the bench. He was squinting North and East.

"Red sails." He shook his head and grumbled to himself, "I knew this was too easy."

"Red sails is a bad thing, I take it." Bromm said.

Floki was on his feet, stumbling slightly from the boat's movement. He moved over to the forming group. The boys looked very anxious.

"You could say that. The Mezzaqat. They raided Dowry some years back. Think of it as the one reason you're going to get paid so well for that powder." Beidrick's dark humor was punctuated by a smirk. "They're faster, likely have a crew of near fifty hands, and are already ahead of us."

He thought for a moment, weighing his options, eyeing the sails on the horizon. He shook his head.

"We'll put in here on the shoreline." He waved to the boy manning the till and the boat rocked suddenly.

"Ease it in, Tad! This boat isn't like your mother! She can only take so much!" Beidrick's insult sent the boy into a fit of red-faced shame.

Silah clicked her tongue at the insult, shaking her head, which prompted a "Bah!" and a dismissive gesture from Beidrick as he moved to the hold. He proceeded to pull up a grey mesh of fabrics and a long length of twine.

"As soon as we're ashore, we need to pull down the mast. The faster we do this, the better of a chance we'll have to avoid fifty-some blades." He was facing away from us as he spoke.

I looked sidelong at Silah, considering the prospect with some interest and excitement. She read the expression and shook her head with a mocking chuckle.

"So, who is the real danger to whom?" She asked, rhetorically.

I shrugged, thinking better of it, then moved to help Beidrick.

"The boys can do this bit. You help me with the mast." He turned from the pile of gray and white netting. "Boys, spread that over the aft of the boat. That's the rear of the boat. We're a rock. Keep that in your head as you're tossing the net around. A rock, boys!"

He flagged to me and we moved over to the mast. I looked to Silah, who had settled onto a bench with a smirk on her face as she watched the men set to work.

Following Beidrick's instructions, I wrapped my arms around the mast and lifted slightly, he pulled a large steel pin out of the housing and then helped me lift it and then lay the mast down gently. Within moments, our boat has become a rock, blending in with the boulders tossed to the beach from the cliffside. We hopped off the boat, completing the dressing as Beidrick followed the red sails on the horizon. We watched from behind the rocks as the ship angled slightly in, but then continued on.

Beidrick let out a relieved sigh.

Bromm was moving down the beach, not paying much mind to the distance of the red sails.

"Anyone want crabs?"

Floki sniggered and Beidrick said, "You haven't even met Sally, yet!"

Bromm looked annoyed, but then pulled up a burlap sack with several crabs attached to it showing Floki and Beidrick who, at first, looked surprised, then nodded approvingly. He shook them off into another bag he had procured. I continued to watch the shoreline, feeling anxious, looking for other red sails while the others continued to gather the plentiful horseshoe crabs that had amassed on the beach. All this while we waited for the red sails to get some distance.

Beidrick looked out to sea again pointing at a disturbance on the water, "Hmm, that wasn't there before."

He dropped his sack and looked closer, "Wait, it's moving!"

Water crashed against a large shell that erupted from the surface. A man-sized claw was wrapped shut with old fish netting and lanced with a couple of javelins that struck true. Maddened by a festering infection, it's beady blood red eyes looked toward us. The other free claw was raised, waving aggressively. The creature rushed forward in a hurry, but as it crested the water, it immediately slowed, unaided by the buoyancy of the water.

"Silah?" I looked behind and she was there, I reached back and she took my hand, melting readily into her Greatsword form. I breathed deeply, preparing to attack.

There's just us. I don't think we can rely on any of the others engaging directly.

I could feel her nod, but I could also sense the anticipation climbing through the blade. Eyes blazing from her massive shadowed visage on the darkened stage of my mind.

I brought the Greatsword to bear and called out to the boy-men.

"On my side! I'll engage. You follow my lead."

I heard a click to my left, and Bromm swore audibly. Arrows sped out from my right, clattering off of the shell. I could hear Beidrick moving on the boat, but I couldn't see him over the towering crab.

The net covered claw sped toward me, and I braced against the impact, which sent a shockwave of force through me. My vision was blurred and my ears rang from the impact. I could taste blood and felt the skin split along my left forearm. I dealt with the pain, feeling a raging heat rise in me. A throbbing red haze filled my vision as my anger mounted. I curled my lips back, bellowing at the monster, moving a step forward to engage. The heated attack struck true, cleaving through the shell and exposing more of the warm white flesh underneath.

"One of you, get behind him!" I yelled to the brothers.

I heard Bromm fiddle with his gun quickly then fire a shot, peeling back some of the shell and taking a few chunks of white flesh with it. Then he ran to the ship, climbing up a boulder and heaving himself over the edge of the boat. More arrows lanced out, one disappearing into the gap I had opened on the beast's carapace. I heard Beidrick shouting from above, but I couldn't make out what he was saying from the rush of blood pounding through my ears. All sound started to fade as my vision narrowed and my heartbeat mounted.

I need you. I might not be able to take another hit like that.

"What would you have me do?" She was recovering from the reverberations from our first attack, but she reflected my feeling of concern.

Healing. I need … No. I have this.

"You're no good to anyone dead."

Yes, heal me.

"Done." She whispered close.

There was a sort of ecstasy, but almost a pained release of energy back into me. A surge came from the sword, lacing down my arms, sealing the split in my forearm. I was able to focus more clearly as some of the pain waned.

One of the claws locked on to Finn, boy behind me. He was pulled into the air effortlessly by the massive creature. He screamed in alarm as he was hoisted up. He rained blows from his boarding axe onto the shell with little effect. His brother had moved around back and was tapping ineffectively at the rear of the creature, doing nothing more than distracting it.

The red haze still lit my vision, and I gripped the blade with all my might, doing a grand overhand stroke, splitting deep into the carapace, splitting down between the eyes and through the frothing mandibles. The strike had sent Silah quivering, but she did not taste death.

It continued to swing furiously, throwing its claws around. Finn cried out in pain as the claw bit into him, blood seeped from claw. He seemed to be barely clinging to life.

I don't think I can save him.

I was distracted with the thought, and another blow landed, rocking me back. This time there was cracking as a few of my ribs gave under the blunt force. The whole side of my body was bloodied and bruised from the ponderous strike. I felt my face and lips start to swell from the impact.

I was lifting Silah for another strike, pained with the effort, then a shot rang out. The hulk immediately went lip, dropping Finn and buckling to the ground under it's own massive weight. My sword was still posed. I looked at Bromm, leaning over the boat's edge with his musket. I glared at him, but I dropped my eyes to the ground and thought of Silah in her human form. I leaned against the rock at my back and tried to catch my breath. I could hear the grinding of cracked ribs in my chest with each gasp. My anger faded and the throbbing red haze parted from my vision.

Beidrick cheered from the back of the boat. Bromm looked warily at me. Silah was slightly perturbed, coming back to her human form mildly sticky and laced with salt water, but her disdain turned to concern. I glanced up at Bromm.

"I'm sorry, I don't blame you. In a situation like that, we shouldn't take any chances." I said, feeling ashamed that I let my anger get the better of me and then directed that anger at a friend.

I sighed. The killing blow. Silah had preserved me with the energy that she had taken from the slain, but I wasn't able to return in kind. I slumped against the rock, feeling every There seemed to be little point to me wearing armor. I tapped on the dented breastplate, then started unbuckling it to help me breathe better. Silah approached, helping with the clasps.

"I had it. I almost had it." I groaned, and looked at Silah apologetically. She shushed me, but there was a sort of manic in her eyes; an unspoken need.

She moved her hands over me, checking for wounds.

"It probably looks worse than it is." She chided with a half-hearted smile, "You'll survive."

I took her hand and put it, painfully, on where I felt my ribs had cracked and took a deep breath feeling the pop and grind with each breath. She pulled her hand back with a grimace.

"You should rest on the boat." She reached down and lifted me easily to my feet considerably more gently than she had done this morning.

"I can walk. I just needed to catch my breath." I bit back the pain with the comment.

Where was Danin when I needed him.

I glanced down at Tad who was attending to Finn. Tad seemed tearful, helping Finn to his feet. The blow had nearly killed him, a deep gouge with pock marks from the inside of the claw across his midsection. He fought hard, even while being crushed in the grasp of that crab. Regardless of Beidrick's berating, the boy had the heart of a fighter. In a situation like that, you couldn't ask for much more.

"So, Beidrick, what's good eating?" I shouted up at the boat, shaking off the fear of my glaring mortality.

His head popped over, "Those claws would cook up nicely."

"What about the meat on the body?"

"No, no. Never the body." He disappeared back over the edge quickly.

I shrugged slightly to myself, then took the boarding axe from the ground where Finn had dropped it. I laid the axe at the base of each claw, avoiding a good portion of the healthy flesh around the infection.

"Legs, too?" I shouted up.

Beidrick looked over the bow of the ship with exasperation.

"Yes, yes. Do you mind? I have work to do." He said to the air as he disappeared from view again.

I gathered the legs up with some effort. Bromm had dropped down, joined shortly by Floki. They continued to gather more of the crabs including the bag that Bromm had tossed when their larger cousin had come ashore. Silah had moved up into the boat, helping Beidrick while Tad attended to his brother.

I tossed the bag aboard and caught a glimpse of Silah single-handedly placing the mast while a bewildered, but very impressed, Beidrick set the pin. I couldn't hear his comments, but they prompted a sparkling laugh from Silah. After he stood, she released the mast and dusted off her hands with a self-satisfied smile. She was revelling in the plight of the common man. Her various lives, up to this point, were likely dull and uninteresting courtly affairs. Nothing at all like this. I couldn't help but feel pleased that I was part of this stage of her near immortal experience.

Beidrick carefully checked the horizon again, making sure that more red sails weren't lurking on the horizon. Silah, Tad, and myself heaved against the bow of the ship, pushing it back out in the sea. The cold salt water lanced at my wounds, reminding me of my condition. I climbed aboard and pulled Silah and Tad aboard, wincing with the effort. I settled in, resuming my position lying down under the benches.

"Let's get underway, shall we?" Beidrick said smoothly,  then began barking commands to his remaining healthy crewman.

(Get to know Akeron)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 17.4 - The Hunt

We passed through Hammer Gate into the Ainsley Gorge on the way to where we planned to hunt. The sun had since crested and was a good hour into starting it's way down. The traffic had thinned as workers settled into their duties The sale of wares on the roads had hit a lull, many talking amongst themselves.

Silah's temper had settled. Her ultimatum was her outlet, and she regained composure by degrees while we walked. Just before the gate, she had cradled my arm as she did the last time we were here. I tried to keep my thoughts from wandering, but it was useless to avoid how much I would have to spend, let alone earn, to fulfill her mandate. I could imagine the smile on her face as she listened in on the frantic accounting. Thankfully, she kept silent while enjoying the whirring gears in my head. I was still a long ways from resolving how to make things right with Silah. Contrition had been a staple for me over the past week.

There were few travelers on the road at this time of day. A shadow was settling across the gorge from the high valley walls. Ahead was the Hlofolk tunnel, one of the only routes of access to the lands South. Eventually, we would venture in, but I had heard plenty of worrying stories about the tunnel. If not for the Ethesia House, I doubt I would have taken the chance to come up here.

I sighed.

Silah patted my arm, still cradling it, but remained facing forward.

"We'll move ahead. Just, stay back a bit." Floki said to the rest of us while flagging for Bromm to come with him.

Sig, Ewe, and Danin were conversing just ahead of us. Both Sig and Danin produced their respective crossbows, they were purely backup if something were to happen at a distance. I incidentally reminded myself of the conversation with Preben about throwing swords and smiled to myself. I felt fingernails bite into me, just enough to be a warning.

"You have to admit. It was funny." I shook off the threat.

"You have an interesting sense of humor if you think that's funny. Keep it up and it'll be liable to get you in trouble." She spoke audibly but remained attached, facing forward.

Ewe ended up with the larger crossbow that had a hand crank to draw the string back. They were showing him how to load it and aim it. There was twang and a bolt thudded into the ground just ahead of them. Ewe laughed nervously and gave Sig with a worried look.

"Maybe we should have prepared Sig's father for this a little better?" I mused aloud, "Hey, maybe I should carry throwing knives?"

I patted around my waist with my left hand where I'd keep something like, visualizing how I'd draw them. Silah looked up at me.

"Are you trying to annoy me?" She glowered. "Why don't you go back to trying to figure out how to meet my demands? Now, that was entertaining."

Her turn to twist the knife.

"You have an unfair advantage in all of this. Wholly unfair."

She raised an elegant eyebrow and smirked, her honey-brown eyes sparkling.

"Always operate from a position of power." She returned to leaning on me, tracing her fingers along the inside of my arm.

I sighed again, but there was a warmth in my heart. Feeling her touch did wonders for my mood.

Floki and Bromm were back on the road, waiting for us to approach. Floki held up a finger and pointed into the bunch of trees just past him, then he put his finger to his lips. We slowed our pace and the conversation between Danin, Sig, and Ewe died down.

As we approached the copse of trees, Floki motioned us to get low and creep to a spot. His guidance kept me from making too much noise. Silah had no trouble. We both took a crouched position looking through the brush to a large boar that was rooting around in a boggy meadow. The shrubs and trees refused to grow in the marshy ground so visibility was not a problem.

Floki pointed out a spot for Bromm to settle in, and he obliged, moving like a ghost behind us until he got into position and put the musket to his shoulder. Sig, Danin, and Ewe were positioned atop a low rise that acted as the edge of the basin for the marsh. Trees readily grew on the mound, giving them more than adequate cover. Ewe had his heavy crossbow at the ready, his breathing was anxious and I could see beads of sweat springing up on his forehead as he tucked it to his shoulder and peered down the shaft.

An adventure of a lifetime.

I smiled to myself. We had given Ewe a new perspective. He seemed so much more alive than when we had first met. His stuffiness had evaporated under the glaring light of each new experience. I just hoped that he could land that shot.

Floki disappeared with some vague instructions that involved a complicated set of hand gestures. Bromm seemed to get it, nodding to him. There was nothing else to do now but wait. Silah moved up close to me, putting a small hand on my left shoulder.

Time passed slowly. I eyed the forest to see where Floki had moved off to, but he had moved like a ghost into the woods.

Then, I heard him. Yelling out and making a commotion, the boar snapped to attention then turned and bolted in our direction. Roots and grass seemed to cling to the boar's body, but it easily ripped through the vegetation that clung to it.

I nodded at the incoming creature with a smile on my face, but realized my hands were empty. This wasn't my kill, I had to remind myself. I heard the muted thump of the crossbow and a bolt lanced off into the trees beyond. I grimaced as the anxious and wide-eyed Ewe walked through the steps of reloading as quickly as possible.

The boar had only just seen us, but was now charging into the midst of the group, head bowing aggressively as it barreled forward. The boar was massive, likely three times my own weight. I worried for our more fragile members, but it seemed to be moving in my direction. Danin had rounded the hill toward me, getting into position to attack. A loud crack rang out as Bromm's musket threw sparks at the beast, peeling back flesh and spraying blood. A few arrows sunk deep into the flanks of the creature, landed expertly by Floki, slowing it briefly.

I saw Sig, out of the corner of my eye, voicing something directed toward the boar, out of the sight of his father. Ewe levelled the crossbow and, sunk a shot into the left shoulder. His eyes widened.

"I hit it!" He exclaimed with both surprise and pride.

The boar had started to round the hill, I looked to Sig and tilted my head toward the boar. He nodded, giving me permission. I reached back for Silah who, must have been watching my movement, grasped my hand. The boar ran unexpectedly into Danin and thrashed hooked him with a tusk. I swung the newly formed greatsword low, as to not be obvious to Ewe, and neatly cleaved through the left flank, removing the leg. A gout of blood arced out and the creature was sent thrashing to the ground. The blade hummed with the ecstasy of taking life. I felt a chill roll through my arms with the experience.

I immediately set Silah down gently behind me and thought of her in human form. I heard a thud as the gore covered blade fell to the ground. I spun around, surprised. I glanced toward Ewe who was still marveling at the massive beast he'd brought down. I think he believed that his shot was the killing blow, which was all that mattered.

I moved over to the bloodied blade and briefly touched it while still on the ground, willing Silah to take human form.

"No." I heard briefly in my head.

I took the handle and held her up. Inspecting the blade.

What's wrong?

"Common courtesy. It's totally lost on you, isn't it? I'm not coming back all covered in filth with present company!" The looming shadow presence of her sat in the distance arms crossed, eyes afire.

My eyes widened with the thought. I hadn't even considered it. I wiped the length of the blade on my tattered wool breeches, transferring the gore from her to me.

How about now?

"Better." She said, still annoyed.

She reformed out of line of sight of Ewe, who had moved up to the boar and pushed at it with his foot. Danin looked annoyed as he touched his own torn flesh. There was a pulse of light and his wounds closed quickly.

What a thing that would be. Healing at will.

I shook my head at his ability.

"Remember, you can always make a mistake once. Once." Silah looked at me sternly, dabbing at her face. There were faint traces of blood streaking her pale skin, but it was far less obvious than it would have been.

"I thought you had to change according to my wishes." I said it apprehensively, bracing against the response.

She affixed me with a long burning stare.

"If it aligns with my wishes, I'll choose to do what you ask me to." She proceeded to pat down her dress, smoothing out any wrinkles.

"Where have you been? It's like you've lost all reason? You have one night out and the gentleman that you were slowly—very slowly—becoming simply evaporated." She crinkled her nose, giving me a look of disdain.

I pondered the thought. I wasn't sure what had changed. She didn't appreciate my humor, I know. But she was more than willing to make it her way and her's alone. There had to be a balance, a mutual respect between us. I was full of questions, but stayed silent, not wanting to poke the dragon. Which, only recently, I had found actually do exist—among other things.

Floki had already sliced into the boar. He was up to his elbows in it, pushing past the cooling flesh from within. In his way, he was a bit of an artist, laying back the flesh, and reducing the carcass into lean cuts of meat.

I gave myself a little distance, moving into the boggy meadow. Something caught my eye. In the water, there was cloth rising to the surface. I reached down and gingerly pulled it out letting it drain. It looked like one of the Dowry guard's uniforms. It was ravaged, torn apart by the brood. A skull lingered just below the surface, glowing eerily in the waning sunlight against the dark bottom.

"Look at this?" I lifted the uniform. A binding rope, frayed, but tightly coiled, fell back into the water.

Bromm joined me and Silah watched, staying out of the water, but within the distance of our bond.

"Someone fell on bad times." Bromm noted.

I picked up the skull and looked at it. A neat diamond shaped hole pierced the rear of the skull near the spine. I shuddered.

"Very bad." I said quietly. I raised my voice, "Do we want to tell anyone about this?"

"Who would we tell?" Floki said, glancing back at us. "It seems like we're more likely to get in trouble for bringing attention to it."

I grimaced, dropping the uniform back into the water and watching it settle to the bottom. I closed my eyes against the sinking feeling I had in my stomach.

Enemies everywhere.

I didn't like Dowry much. Too many games above my head. It was far too easy to become a pawn in all this nonsense. I was ready to return to the relative simplicity of Hlorfreden. Ah, my times at The Sea Witch. What I would give to be back there right now.

I sloshed out of the bog into an ongoing discussion.

"How do we plan to pack this out?" Sig said.

"We could each carry some." Floki suggested, shrugging.

"I could take it." I said, eyeing the significant load of meat.

"There's about three hundred stones worth of meat here. Are you sure you can take that?"

I grimaced. I could carry it, but we were going to be walking for miles.

"It'll be bulky, but I can carry it. Unless you want to use your magic purse," I motioned to Sig who gave me a sour look.

"No way is that going in there!" He said with a furrowed brow, "I'd never get the smell out!"

Floki turned to Bromm.

"You have that belt, right? Hakaar could use that to pack all this out."

"If someone is willing to carry some of my load, I'm game." Bromm nodded.

Silah held up a hand.

"I can help."

I looked at her with an appreciative smile and she returned a tense look, bordering aggravation. I really had no idea what to do with her. For all of the good that had happened in the last couple of days, I now felt like I was losing her bit by bit.

Floki created an improvised sling with the hide of the boar using some rope, and neatly laid the meat in rows until each sling was full.

A bellow rose, echoing off of the canyon walls. Piercing the quiet of the forest. The ambiance quieted, birds and insects stopped their chatter. Wide eyes went up and around the group.

"We had better leave. Now." Floki got to his feet, hurried to the meadow, and quickly rinsed the blood off of his hands and forearms in the standing water of the bog. He then pulled out his bow and started picking a path back to the road.

I ratcheted the belt on that Bromm handed to me and, they were right, the meat was considerably lighter than I expected. I set each rope over the opposite shoulder. I was covered in the smell of new death, but, now-a-days, it seemed to be my way of life. Silah gingerly held Bromm's musket, showing her trepidation for the weapon.

With as loud as that bellow was, there was no follow up. We hurried down the trail, passing roads leading up to farm houses. A man had moved to the end of his lane and exchanged words with Sig and Ewe. There was a polite nod from the man as he turned and moved back down his lane. I was worried. Danger lurked so close and we just kicked the hornets nest. I hoped that there would be no repercussions affecting these families.

At Hammer Gate, money changed hands as they pointed back to me. Apparently, there was a tax on goods coming into the city.

It was awkward moving through the city laden with meat. There were many a look, layered with both disgust and envy. I kept plodding along, starting to feel the weight of the load bite through my shoulders. Ewe was now leading us, pointing past his house to a local butcher.

The butcher looked bemused as we walked in, ready to turn us away, until he saw the meat we had brought.

"It's been downright dry, lately! The ranch took a turn for the worst and we haven't seen beef in a while. What's that you have there?"

Floki piped up.

"We just took down a boar outside of town. The meat is as fresh as you can get it. Ewe, what would you like to do with it?"

"Some rounds of fresh chops. Marinated the way I like them, of course," He gave the man a knowing look. "And I'll have the rest cured and jerked."

"Winter's over, my man. Curing can only go so far without a cold room." He warned Ewe who immediately smiled.

"I've had my eye on one of those alchemical cooling devices…" Ewe stopped and straightened up, "For another time. I've got business to attend to."

Coins exchanged hands, and I laid the meat gingerly on the counter. My shoulders ached with the release. The butcher immediately set to work, gathering his tools and laying out the meat with practiced precision.

We had parted ways with Ewe, who was walking confidently back to his home. His childlike excitement was apparent with the wide smile that spread across his face. There was no doubt that we'd be doing this again.

We went to Butterwicks immediately. I was feeling self-conscious with each step as I no longer had meat draped over me to account for the amount of blood I was still wearing. I thought of making a show of it, but decided against that. There were enough rumors on these streets already.

I handed the blood encrusted belt off to Bromm, who eyed it with contempt, then looked back at me. I nodded toward Floki.

"It was his idea, right? I'd have him clean it up." I said apologetically. "I'm done dealing with blood for today."

He looked pitiful, and his mouth yammered silently. I shrugged heavily at him and turned away.

I moved toward the stairway up to the rooms. Silah, in turn, handed him his musket, which he promptly put down while still eyeing the bloodstained belt, unsure of what to do next. She slowed her pace behind me, taking her time getting up the stairs.

I opened the door and sprawled on the small chair, my head lolling backward. I reached up and started unbuckling the breastplate with some effort. I had begun to feel the strain on my body from carrying that load. I could barely lift my arms above my shoulders. The belt helped tremendously, it was true. But the slings, as ingenious as they were, did the most damage. I rubbed the now bared shoulder before attempting to unclasp the next.

I heard Silah enter the room quietly and move up behind me. I closed my eyes, bracing for the torrent that was yet to be unleashed. But, instead, she unbuckled the other clasp and lifted the breastplate away, setting it noiselessly on the floor. She began to knead my shoulders, putting a man's strength worth of work into each individual hand. At times I cringed with, but slowly the muscles loosened and I melted like butter on a warm day. She continued, moving to my neck, then she traced her fingers over my shoulder as she moved over to the bed and sat down facing me.

I was bewildered by the attention. Confused at the tenderness where there had been anger. I was exhausted by the constant push and pull. Nothing had remained settled for long. I'd say it was my fault, because it almost always was, according to Silah. Yet, I wasn't the one choosing to be offended.

"You'd probably do better to jump in the bay than sit in a tub full of bloodied water." She said with a weak smile.

"I'm sure I'll manage," I nodded quietly, "And thank you."

I sat forward and removed my boots in silence. I stood and stretched, bumping into the ceiling with my hands, feeling the tension in my shoulders evaporate. I looked at her, she sat looking at me with an unreadable expression.

"And, really, thanks. That was amazing." I rolled my head around, feeling far better than I had in ages. I paused, thinking to myself, then looked to her.

"But, why?" I asked feeling confused, "I thought you were mad at me."

I waited briefly. She looked at me with a placid expression.

"You are more like Duncan than you may believe." She tilted her head slightly looking wistful, beautiful, "There are a lot of people in your life."

I shrugged, "Yes, but I'm not sure..."

"I just have to remember that." She interrupted quickly, while nodding. Then she smiled and did a shooing motion, "Go take your bath."

I rooted through my rucksack and produced a clean undershirt and smallclothes. I went to the door, glanced back at her and nodded, unable to mask my bewilderment. I walked into the bath room, spending time, first, to clean my existing clothes, the blood stains not rubbing out readily. I hung up my breeches and underclothes so that they could drip dry.

I drained the dark pink water, listening to it gurgle and sputter down the small drain in the tub. The small potbelly stove had a reservoir built into it. Lighting the stove and filling the reservoir did the difficult work for you, letting you fill the tub from a nozzle once it was hot enough.

I took my time, taking the hard cake of soap and attacking the crusts of blood that criss-crossed my body. At least, this time, it wasn't mine. I had felt Silah moving around, at the edges of our bond, but little else beyond that.

I cleaned up, doing my best to make it presentable for whoever came next, then moved through the hallway and pushed into the room. I looked toward the bed but didn't see Silah. My heart skipped a beat as I took in the room.

Silah sat in the small wooden chair facing the washing basin. The mirror was coated with steam from the hot water. My breath caught in my throat. Her shoulders and back were bare, the elaborate tattoos weaved intricate patterns up either side of her spine. There was a pink towel on the right of the basin and fresh towel to the left. Her purple dress was piled on the floor next to the chair. She was dipping the towel in her hand into the scaldingly hot water and wiping her face, then moving on to her shoulders. The towel began to pick up the pinkish hue with each pass.

She began to turn toward me and I immediately turned to the side, putting my hand up to block my vision. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to intrude." My heart was racing.

"Intruding?" The question in her voice seemed genuine.

I heard her turn back to the basin, and I chanced a glance toward her. She was wringing out the towel in the basin with such strength that its fibers squealed. She poured the scalding clean water over the towel in her hand and continued to towel the traces of blood off of her arms, lifting them gracefully. Her eyes following each careful stroke of the towel.

"This is a very calming ritual." She nodded slowly. "I can see why you do it so regularly."

"Well, that and being presentably clean. Which has been more difficult lately." I said, trying to keep it as an offhand comment, but I was incredibly anxious and my voice quavered slightly.

Silah had to know what effect this situation had on me. I clenched my teeth, it was yet another way to put me off balance. And it was working. I paused looking around the room for what I needed to be publicly presentable.

"I'll meet you downstairs when you're ready." I moved quickly through the room, grabbing my breastplate, boots and sheaths.

I shut the door quietly behind me and took a deep breath. The bath was now occupied by someone else. They were noisily splashing around in there. I took the time in the hallway to finish dressing.

I ran my hand over my face. Silah wasn't around to scold me, so I went right back to my old habits. I looked at my trembling hand and clenched it tight, steadying it against my nerves.

What was it that Duncan said? "Fitting to have a weapon be a woman. Fitting, but dangerous."

It was never a matter of desire. There had always been desire. But then there was consequence to be considered, too. Decisiveness in battle was critical to survival for both you and your squad. The Grasslions were unequivocal and unanimous in their loyalty to orders. That's largely how Duncan trained us, there was no question but to do what you were told and do it well knowing he had both the interests of the squad and the battle in mind.

With Silah, I was far from decisive. So many lives depended on us working well together, but I was the one taking the risks. Adding anything new to this was just going to be far more trouble. We had only just begun to understand each other. It took years of training to learn to fight effectively in cooperation with others. With her, there was neither a trainer or a known foe to plan for. It was just us, or, perhaps, just me. So far, the combination of us had been our own worst enemy.

That, and the fact that I had no idea how to associate with women. It was becoming increasingly apparent that I was ill prepared. Hell, maybe Robyn would exchange a favor for a favor? She could give me some clue as to what I was getting into.

I could see Robyn's sarcastic smirk now. It brought a small smile to my lips. No. There was no possible way she could prepare me for the level of gentry required to stand toe to toe with Silah. But maybe that wasn't the point? I wanted leverage so I didn't feel so weak willed when there was blood on the line.

I clomped down the stairs heavily. Indecision and confusion rattling around in my head.

Sig was downstairs getting a meal. He mentioned that his father had stopped in at Butterwick's, and said that someone had come by with the contract "and a bit more". Ewe offered to have the envoy meet at his house. Sig was planning on heading that direction after his meal. I nodded and offered to join him.

They had a rough history together, from what others had said. I couldn't see it, though. Maybe at first, but I wasn't sure who was being more tolerant. They seem like a pair to me, both matching each other's rhythm with very little effort.

I wasn't hungry, but I did order an ale so I had something to do with my hands. My nerves settled as I sipped and talked with Sig. The others started to filter downstairs. Bromm first, then Silah, then Danin. I nodded to each in turn, having a hard time meeting Silah's gaze. She pulled up a chair next to me and listened in on the conversation quietly.

"We should go. I'm not sure when the envoy will get there, but we should be ready for him." He smiled, "My father will probably keep us entertained while we wait."

"I like that idea." I nodded, tipping the mug his direction.

We approached Ewe's home just as the envoy arrived. We were all invited in graciously by Sig's mother, a woman who had aged gracefully, that is, until her worries caught up to her. We were in the sitting room, I sized up my compatriots, each maintained a polish that I couldn't compare to. Silah sat across from me, looking at me with an assuming gaze, tilting her head and studying me. I fidgeted under her gaze, feeling crazed with the colliding feelings.

Ewe stepped in and joined us.

"Dear? A round a glasses and our finest liquor, if you please? We have business to celebrate." He smiled around the room. There was a proud glow in his face as he regarded Sig.

The envoy gathered signatures from Sig and Bromm, while Danin notarized the dealings with an inked stamp from his station with the Derum Ebbar clerics. After all seemed taken care of, the man dropped a jingling bag in Sig's hand. His eyes had widened briefly, looking surprised by the weight.

A round of liquor was poured, one I had never heard of. Old Law was the liquor I was most familiar with up to this point. This burned like liquid fire, but melted into the palate with fine taste of cloves and sage. I looked around the table with a grin spreading wide. I suppressed my enthusiasm as everyone else remained extraordinarily calm. I would have to ask Ewe about that later.

Everyone stood and shook the man's hand. I was a clear head and a half taller and I closed my meaty hand gently around his hand. The man looked anxious, but I nodded, hopefully appearing as gracious as my countenance would allow. It was Silah who told me to be careful to whom I smiled as it looked … menacing.

We made our way out the door, Sig and Danin matched pace with the envoy while Bromm, Floki, Silah and I moved back toward Pike's. The sun had only a mere hour of light left before it dropped behind the rising hillside.

Bromm had mentioned that he wanted to see if one of the Salamanders had a pistol called a Pepperbox. Along the way, a contingent of the Salamanders posting the fliers they had mentioned about the lost duchess. There wasn't an illustration, but the description of her was exactly her. E'robyn. I smiled at how she had distanced herself from her name, but with a style of hiding in plain site. When I first heard how they pronounced Robyn's birth name, I didn't get it, but having it spelled out on paper it was suddenly obvious.

Igul eyed us, and his mouth stretched into a thin line.

"Evening." He nodded.

"So this is the flier, eh?" Bromm said, taking one from the top. "How about we help get these up for you?"

Igul's eyes lit up and the thin line stretched into a smile.

"You would? There's a stack, we have a hammer and some small pitons there." He pointed out the supplies.

I took one of the fliers and tucked it away, then proceeded down the street, tacking the posters to any posts available. I overheard two of the Salamanders talking, setting my ears ablaze.

"Word is, this is just for show. He say's we're moving on North and East in the morning."

I looked to Silah seeing if she caught that. She had been keeping her distance from the show, but listening in. She looked up at me and nodded. I grimaced. My queasiness from our earlier encounter completely subsided. We were working again and that kept my mind off of where things were headed.

The stack of fliers dwindled to nothing. And Igul slapped Bromm on the back.

"You, my friend, are a man of your word!"

"But you're buying, right?" Bromm pointed to him.

"For you? Sure! I choose, though. I know how this goes." Igul rallied the group, "We're done, boys. Let's head back to Pike's!"

We moved along with the troupe. Preben was there, he gave me a nod, but I think the discomfort he felt last time he walked with me made him think twice about doing it again.

"Does anyone in your group own a pepperbox?" Bromm asked Igul.

"I know at least one. Martin. He's had terrible luck with it. It's a fine weapon, so we blame the bad luck on him."

"Do you think Martin'd be willing to sell?"

Igul shrugged.

"I wouldn't be surprised? Come and ask him yourself so I can buy you that drink." Igul patted Bromm on the back again.

I lagged back and lingered by Silah.

"I wish I felt good about any of this. We have to warn her just in case it's a trap."

Silah nodded.

I paused, I was starting to feel anxious again.

"What about you?" I asked her.

"What about me?" She looked up at me.

"Did I do something? I can't fix it if I don't know." I looked at her, trying to read her expression.

"There's nothing to fix. You're fine." She said and she put her hand on my arm. I looked into her eyes, trying to find some clue, but she tilted her head again. "You're sweet. Just stay the way you are."

It was an answer that wasn't an answer at all. I furrowed my brow and nodded.

"Well, then, let's go. We've got business."

We pushed through the front door of Pike's.

There was a deal going on right then. Bromm had pulled out his musket and his pistol, engraved with the word Glory. Martin Monk, in his Salamanders garb, produced an equivalent sized, but multi-barrelled, pistol. This is what Bromm had been calling the pepperbox. They were inspecting each others weapons with some enthusiasm.

I overheard Bromm spinning a tale about a place called Briargate on a forbidden island full of witches and pirates. The town in Briargate is where the pistol was manufactured as part of a war between champions of the gods.

The story was intricate and, in looking at Bromm, I realized that he genuinely believed it. It may have been overstated somewhat, but he was intent on the tale in a way I hadn't seen before. I knew I had to ask him about it later. Whether it was a well practiced fabrication or the real thing, only he could tell me.

The man was pleased with the story and asked for a writ from Bromm himself, to the authenticity of the weapon's origin. Bromm scrawled to paper and handed the weapons over in exchange for the shiny new pepperbox.

After that, we made our way out of Pike's.

"We need to get to Robyn quickly. Did you hear what they were saying? They're leaving tomorrow morning." My words were heated.

"We'll get there. Let her know so that this is happening on her own terms." Bromm assured me.

"You don't think it's true, then? That they're hunting her?"

"I'm not sure what to think. But I owe her a warning. If she wants to take it, that's her business." Bromm nodded.

Bromm continued, "Let me drop this off with Sig," he held up the new pistol, "and we'll talk with Beidrick. You and I will leave at first light."

(Get to know Akeron)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 17.3 - Official’s Business

One thing that had been rubbed out of me in the military was allowing myself the luxury of being groggy; taking the time to gather your wits. On the battlefield, you were sleeping or you were awake, you couldn't afford to linger in between.

I had relegated myself to sleeping on the rug in the center of the room. Silah, whether she needed or not, took the bed. I was glad to allow it. The words she has said on a number of occasions up until now echoed in my head: "I am a lady, first." This put me in the frame of mine to compromise in order to keep her happy.

I woke with her looking down on me from the edge of the bed. She gave me a half smile as my eyes snapped open.

"Oh, hello." She whispered looking wistful.

I felt a rosy warmth spread through me with the greeting. A wave of adoration washed over me. I held back a smile which brought about an amused look from Silah.

I busied myself with the morning preparations while she looked on. I made the difficult decision to keep Silah sheathed, considering the goings on from last night. While it made me feel a pang of guilt, she didn't seem to mind. I met the others down in the lobby and set off to court. It was early and the roads were the foot traffic of preparation. Bakers were putting their carts in position, waiting for their loaves and sweetbreads to be delivered. Others were preparing for the morning traffic and, likely, depending on a lucrative afternoon to pay their bills.

The ferry loaded with foot and carriage traffic, filling to capacity. There was a chill in the air from the gusts through the bay, it clawed at the waterproof cloak I was wearing, tossing it around. The duster didn't afford much protection from the cold, but I set my teeth so they wouldn't chatter.

Last night had reminded me of the poor condition of my clothes. My patched grey wool breeches and the thin white shirt, acting as the only cushion between me and my well worn—and now nearly frozen—breastplate. Among those who were dressed for court, I felt like a warrior pauper. This soured my desire to join my brothers-in-arms within the walls of the castle. I begged off from the group, seeing the line that I didn't want to stand in.

Thankfully, as the sun crested, it warmed quickly. The greenery started to glow under the sun's warm touch. Well manicured trees and shrubs surrounded the castle creating a lush forest that I could lose myself in. It was a marvel, close cropped grass around old growth. I wandered freely, spending time at some of the larger trees, seeing the effect of nature's power. The trivial dealings of men seemed small when you looked to their grand stature. Ironic that those dealings were within a bowshot of where I stood.

I put my hand to one of the trunks and ran my fingers over the rough bark, feeling the might of nature.

"Hakaar!" A voice called through the trees. It was Floki, "We're heading back. It looks like we not only won the dispute, but we've also landed the contract."

I moved to meet him. I had lost track of time, the sun was well on its way skyward by this point.

"That's good to hear." I nodded, feeling detached.

"I think we can blame Sig's father for our success. He set up the meets and worked out the contracts that put all of this in place." He nodded thoughtfully, "I think things would have gone much differently if he weren't involved."

I bobbed my head back and forth.

"I think we—well, you and the others—would have worked something out."

"Probably. But this was a lot easier," He started moving away, beckoning me to follow, "Come on. We're going to celebrate."

"Celebrating? At Butterwicks?"

"Naw. A really high-end place called Chantry Ale House."

"That doesn't sound like a high-end place?" I chuckled.

"Oh, it's been around for ages. A haven for the nobles and the like."

"And we can afford this somehow?" I said, figuring I was stating the obvious.

"I'm going to pitch in. I've had some put away for a rainy day."

"Ironic, that." I looked up at the crisp blue sky, the sun now high to the East.

"Isn't it?" He agreed with a smile.

Floki and I were walking directly to Chantry over the grassy hillside and had started to converge on the Ale House before the rest. Sig's father, Ewe, had come in his alchemical coach and taken his son, Bromm, and Danin.

"He's gotten used to that thing," Floki pointed him out from a distance.

The driver expertly popped the wheels with a burst of speed around the corner, sending a flurry of sparks and startling those on foot. He weaved through the crowd effortlessly and locked the brake with a slight skid into a tight spot on the roadside. I raised an eyebrow, impressed by his skill. We trundled down the hill, down to where the black, crab-like coach was parked. Ewe exited with a smile. He had a sparkle in his eye that wasn't there before. He snapped his lapels tight and spun on his heel toward the front door. I followed his gait with my eyes and realized I was standing next to the monstrosity that was the Chantry Ale House.

This place was old. Actually, more like ancient. It was a Dwarven structure that seemed to have evolved as it was being built. The outside looked more than a little odd. But, as Ewe explained, that, on the inside, it was a veritable maze of narrow passageways, dead ends, and nooks. Ewe mentioned that there were many and indiscretion kept secret because of this maze.

A waitress was waiting at the ready, straightening up as we moved in through the greeting lobby. It had an arrangement that reminded me more of an Inn with a greatroom behind a wall and counter. She pulled out a variety of thin slate tablets and, instead of moving to the greatroom behind her, she pointed hastily to a side corridor and led us at a quick pace. The corridor turned into a winding staircase going up, flattening out, turning right, then going up again. Glancing down the unlit hallways, I could see stairs the led to dead ends and small side passages where I swear I could smell wafting food.

It made sense that these walls held secrets soundly. I doubt I could have even squeezed through some of the smaller passageways making for all sorts of room for indiscretion. The low and boxy Dwarven construction was not my friend. Danin, however, was perfectly at home. Marveling at the walls and running his hands over the ancient stonework.

We shuffled into one of the larger alcoves the waitress turned toward us with a wide smile, lighting up the room brilliantly. He bosoms were suspended gratuitously, giving everyone an exceptional view of her assets.

"My name is Margarette. I will be your attendant for the evening." It was a strange emphasis, but it clearly supplanted the term waitress in respect.

She artfully went down the list of specialty items. Handing out the slates, which, I recognized from the discards from the old mine we had discovered behind our acquired Shatterhammer storehouses. Usually these were scratched with chalk, but these had been written with some alchemical ink that glowed slightly in the darkness, a must for these dark rooms. Well, a must for the humans in the room. Chantry had spared no expense.

I had decided to let someone else order. While the menu was full there was not a single price listed, which made me wary of the expense. I understood quality and I was very hungry, but, regardless of how intent I was on paying attention, I quickly lost track of the many intangible descriptions the woman tacked on to each dish.

"Our specialty for today is a slow roasted duck that is then baked with a raspberry candied glaze. Thinly sliced and served with a wide variety of cheeses." She smoothly executed the menu, "This is my personal favorite. We get a sample of the special for the day, and this… I just melted."

Margarette put her hand to her chest passionately, overcome with the experience, I'm sure. That was all that was needed to sell the deal. Even Ewe had a rosy look to his face. I was grinning in spite of myself.

"I'm in." Bromm stated calmly, tossing his slate into the center of the table.

"But first, you should wet your palate with our finest ale. It's brewed in the lowest parts of the Ale House using the finest hops and spices. The brother's Chantry made this secret recipe many years ago when they first opened. It is unparalleled in quality." She leaned forward on the table, grabbing the slate from where it landed, "If you're looking for an experience, I would choose ..."

Still leaning forward, she was now almost horizontally over the table, suspending herself with strong legs using a sure grip with her leather soled shoes on the floor and the bulky table to keep her aloft, she tipped the slate toward Bromm, who was watching her closely, and pointed at the bottom entry. Danin was looking at the dress pulled tight around her shapely bottom.

"... this." Margarette said, without a hint of strain in her voice.

I felt butterflies in my stomach watching this woman work. I realized that I also felt a pang of regret. This likely wouldn't have happened if Silah was here. She would've had none of it. My eyes widened and I sat absolutely still. I hadn't twisted the sheath, so we hadn't been contact all day. And while I felt a little guilty, I was also very relieved.

"A round of those, absolutely." Floki said with a wry grin, looking past Bromm's stunned silence. He hadn't taken his eyes off of her.

"Perfect. The very best for my boys." She righted herself easily, using one of her gorgeous legs as a counter-balance. She collected the slates, spun with a flourish, and exited the alcove.

Sig coughed slightly. I rubbed my forehead, looking at the others. Waiting for someone to speak.

"You should've seen what I saw." Danin said, with a grin and a slow nod.

First was a round of ales, which, apparently, was their finest brew. It was dark and richly dense, with just enough sweetness and not overly hoppy. Bromm had a glimmer in his eye as he pulled the mug from his lips.

"Maybe I should pay their brewery a visit?" He smacked his lips and put the wooden mug down.

I gave him a sidelong glance, and shook my head slowly.

"What?" He said, incredulous, "I'd just like to shake their hands!"

"Yes, I'm sure."

The attendant participated readily, getting a full meal herself in the process. She would pair the candied duck roast with a selected slice of cheese and hand it us. Bromm leaned forward with his mouth open and she obliged, dropping it daintily on his tongue. Danin, also, got into the act. I was content to feed myself, but the artistry in her delivery was it's own sort of enchanting.

We had spent an hour dining with the near constant attention of our attendant. Many a gold exchange hands outside the actual cost of the meal. All she had to do was make us feel like kings.

I spread a butter mixture on the warm bread, and, to my surprise, it was honey butter. I hadn't had this in a very long time. I melted into my chair. Between the duck, cheeses, bread, and ale. It was a meal full of decadence. I glanced around the table and saw the same looks of sleepy satisfaction. Even Margarette seemed to have slowed her quick gait to linger in an available chair.

"We should get moving. We've got other plans for today," Floki said.

The attendant was immediately on her feet. She jingled slightly. She gripped her pouch, silencing the amount we had already spent on her. I chuckled to myself thinking of Silah doing similar work, but again, the horror of her observing and not participating ate away at my good mood. I grimaced at the forthcoming tongue-lashing.

Danin and Floki drained their purses. The woman had a small smile on her face as she gathered the coinage. She looked at each of us in turn.

"I hope to see you again in the future? Follow me, I can show you out." She walked purposefully out of the room and we filed out behind her. I quietly stepped into a side passage and unsheathed Silah. Bringing her back to human form in a dark alcove. She was quiet but her eyes were piercing.

"The whole meal? You forgot me for the whole meal?" She hissed as we filed back in line with the others, "Oh, I know better than to believe that."

I glanced at her, her shoulders were up, bristling. I'd seen this before, it was a dangerous sort of pouting. Our attendant swung the front doors open and the bright outdoors poured in, like pouring fire into my skull. I held up a hand so I could see. As we moved outside Silah stopped and turned to Margarette, sizing her up, with her fists balled up at her sides. Margarette was clearly surprised to see Silah exiting with us. I turned and watched, hoping it wouldn't go further than that. I cleared my throat, trying to bring her back from the brink. The woman looked very uncomfortable, eyes darting into the Ale House and back to Silah. But, eventually, Silah disengaged from her long angry stare and indelicately tromped toward me.

"Bye, loves!" Margarette called out and blew us a collective kiss. Silah stopped and snapped her head angrily toward the front doors as they quickly shut.

I waited while Silah caught up to me and fell in step with her, moving behind the rest.

Ewe was curious where Silah had come from. Sig leaned over and said something to him, and Ewe nodded with a smile, and continued to his alchemical carriage.

"We'll meet at my father's house for the hunt," Sig called back while Bromm and Danin piled in. He looked at the fuming Silah, "Just, get there when you get there."

Floki announced that he was stopping by to get some supplies before the hunt. "Just to be sure," he said. I gave him a sidelong look, more of pleading than question. He gave me a half-hearted smile and a thumbs up out of Silah's sight as he turned to take an alternate route.

In spite of everyone's smooth exits, we all ended up in different spots on the returning ferry. Silah and I stood silently side by side as it made its way back to the mainland.

And things had been going so well.

"So, how do I make this up to you?" I said, breaking the silence.

Her shoulders had since dropped and she wasn't overtly fuming anymore. She immediately squared off with me, locking eyes.

"If you want to make it up to me. This is what I want: You treat me to an evening of decadence—sooner, rather than later, mind you." She jabbed a finger to my chest painfully for each request, "We order the most expensive item off of the menu with a bottle of their finest wine or liquor—you can choose, I'm not picky."

"Then we will spend a delightful evening, walking with me—quite likely on that island back there—treating me like the jewel I am."

My head was spinning with the request.

"And we will continue the night until I duly sated. I expect, by then, you will never forget me." She seethed for a moment, then rather quickly regained her composure.

"And you're going to have to get some new clothes. Someone of my quality would nary be seen with such a ruffian." She turned toward the ferry exit as we were about to make landfall. "And I could use something more fitting as well."

I lifted my hand to my face, preparing to rub my forehead in response. She shot me a glare.

"Don't. Do. It," she said each word sharply.

I leaned my head back and looked to the sky.

May the gods take me and give me rest.

(Get to know Akeron.)