Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 23.4 - Socialite

We had a late start, missing the first patrol out. A bleary eyed Duncan came to see us off, wishing us well. We both had stayed up far too late, spinning tales, until, eventually, Silah and Amalia had shown up, bringing buckets of water with them. In the haze, I remembered the awkward dance as Silah carried me to my room. The swelling in my face, which I was told, had gone down significantly, likely happened when she tried to get me through the bedroom doorway through multiple attempts.

"I have a tendency to get frustrated with puzzles." She had said as an offhanded apology.

The journey to Dowry was hot. The humidity from the nearby ocean made everything damp. Another thing that I hadn't had to deal with on the Southern plains. Silah was unphased, unsurprisingly. She would squint at the sun and say, "It's awfully bright out today," and flash her brilliant smile around, completely unperturbed. Her display seemed to emphasize my need for water. Before long, I had drained my waterskin just after the halfway point of the journey after sweating out the remainder of last night's drinking session.

Duncan had seemed cheerful this morning, which warmed me in a way I couldn't describe. Duncan, as stoic as he was, had always been the strong one. I was happy to be allowed in that inner-sanctum to see his thoughts percolate. While he never put on airs to be more than human, it was interesting to see how human he was. And, while still being human, how good of a man he was. I couldn't see what he was saying when he said that my sense of fairness didn't come from him.

The thought led me to his words from last night. I shook my head, stuffing away the inclination that anyone from my family could still be alive. It brought back that ache that I had only recently become aware of.

We attempted to catch up with the morning guard patrol that we had missed, but it ended up not being a worry. The guard presence was extreme, with checkpoints of bleary eyed guards at regular intervals within sight of each other. A pair of fully armored knights, likely sweating profusely under those helmets, were moving regularly between points. The whole thing looked overly orchestrated.

The knights approached, the larger of the two, closest to us, leaned forward and swung his mask open to the side. He looked surprisingly comfortable in there.

"Hello m'lady." His voice rolled out with a gravelly bravado, "The roads have been dangerous, you and your bodyguard should travel to Dowry posthaste."

She squinted up at him against the glare of his armor, but didn't say anything. The smaller of the knights looked to us, but remained silent.

"We're fine. We'll make haste." I said quickly, wanting to be on my way.

"Ah, good sir, you should not be so rude to speak over her ladyship." He rolled out the words evenly to me in a most artful condescension. "As you were saying, m'lady?"

"A horse would be splendid." Silah said, leaning her head to the side and, again, showing her winsome smile.

The knight smiled at the sound of her voice, but his eyes wore a look of confusion.

My hackles rose, I wasn't sure if it was because I was feeling hints of jealousy or knowing that she was going to attempt something that we would ultimately regret. I stepped forward and rested my hand on her shoulder.

Please. Don't. I urged.

The knight eyes widened, shocked with affront.

"Man! How dare you lay a hand..."

"He's fine, we are of an accord." Silah spoke to the man. "He may have just saved you some trouble."

At the same time that she spoke, she appeared in my head, looking annoyed.

"Why do you have to spoil everything? I could have gotten us a ride." She echoed with her glowing eyes boring right through me.

Fooling one of the Princess's knights would rain hell on us. I grumbled in thought. It is worse than a bad idea.

"Fine. Always so sensible." She said, winking out in the blackness of my mind as quickly as she came.

"What do you mean by that, m'lady?" The man was now looking annoyed, turning awkwardly to glance at his compatriot, who remained silent in all of this.

"You can thank this man for slaying your giants!" Silah said, passionately, playing a part I wasn't accustomed to. "Where were you? The Princess's own protectors! But this man and his friends; they saved me. They saved us all!"

She looked at the man, tearful and earnest. The look on his face was priceless, agape and very much not wanting to be there.

"I … I love him!" She leaned back into me, grabbing one of my hands roughly and pulling it around her.

I stiffened and stared on blankly as I became a prop in her improvised drama. I could feeling my entire body flush further under the already miserable sun. She turned toward me, reached up, and pulled me down close to her. Kissing me squarely on the lips, sending my eyes bulging with the force of her embrace.

Please. Don't do this. I was pleading in my thoughts, but all I felt in response was a sly smile.

"Very good. Safe travels." The man's voice was wooden, he clapped the horizontal visor over his eyes, then faced forward, giving his horse a small tap with his boots sending it to walking. The other knight delayed then followed suit.

"You can let me go now." I said squeakily through her iron grip.

"Ah, but I am enjoying this." She said, sounding predatory. She kissed me again, but now that the audience had moved on, it was genuine. Our connection sparked a shimmer of ache and longing which reflected wildly between us.

I stood, letting my shame from just earlier fall away and embraced the rush of vigor I now felt. I glanced back toward the knights as they moved trotted away. I could see an alchemical contraption on the back of their armor and remembered the climate control device in Mont Brooks and realized that they were likely far more comfortable than I had assumed. Definitely more comfortable than I was.

There was a bit of an exchange from the smaller knight to the man who approached Silah, but you could tell the larger of the two wasn't interested in talking.

"We should do that more often." Silah mused aloud as we continued toward Dowry.

"What's that?" I looked sidelong at her.

"Have fun. We should have fun more often." She looked up at me and smiled widely, teetering to and fro. The glint in her eye was wild and alluring. My heart beat faster as I gazed into her eyes.

I love that girl. I felt a silly grin spread across my face at the thought.

"Our definitions of fun are very different." I said looking forward, the grin still plastered to my face.

"Yeah? Then why are you smiling." She said quickly.

"Oh, No reason." I said as nonchalantly as I could.

She grinned and snatched my hand up in hers as we continued our walk.

The sun was nearing its zenith as we began to pass the small shanties that had been popping up outside of Dowry. There were a few who I had seen wandering Hlofreden when Sig posted jobs for Richter Holdings. Apparently, these unfortunate leftovers had no place else to be. I expected that the Princess would not tolerate them for long. Out of sight, out of mind seemed to be the way this city had been run.

I felt queasy as we moved into the bustle of the Dowry streets as we moved through Cutridge on South Ridge Road. It was lighter on this side of town, mostly travelers and the sort, but as I looked ahead, I could feel my pulse rise as the crowds grew thicker. Silah watched me and shook her head as she silkily twined her arm around mine.

"Of all the people who should be worried, it's really them who should be worried about you." She whispered through my cluttered thoughts, giving me something to focus on other than the crowd.

She moved in easily, presenting herself in the midst of my mind, lounging in her chair and speaking to me soothingly as I was on high alert. Even with her attempts at keeping me pre-occupied, I was very much rooted in reality.

I'm not always worried about them or a knife in the back. I'm also worried about what I would do to them if anything were to happen. I mused internally.

"You have far more control than you let on." Her lounging visage said through a slight chuckle, her glowing eyes crinkled with mirth. "I should know."

I sighed, attempting to relax, but even the slightest jostle brought me back to high alert.

"You continually forget at how intimidating you can be." She said, gazing through my vision, "The eyes I see are wary of your and not at all threatening."

Well, that's its own sort of comforting, I guess. What I would give to be able to blend in. I let the thought go as Silah, both her visage and her diminutive self, looked at me with annoyance.

"You're going to have to own it, someday. Own the fact that you are never going to fit in and make it yours. You've spent far too much time accommodating human culture." She said, urging for a greatness that I could never see come into my reach.

Easy for you to say. You're built to blend in. I thought, then suddenly regretted it.

"Fair enough." She said, being surprisingly objective of what I had alluded to.

I pushed through the crowds on toward Butterwicks where the others said they would be waiting. The smell of food filled the streets from both carts and the taverns that lined the streets. My stomach gurgled with the reminder. Perhaps things would calm if I gave it some time in Butterwicks and grabbed lunch with the others.

The response of the buxom woman taking orders at Butterwicks was a shake of the head.

"They moved on some time ago, sir." She said, her small voice belying her generous proportions. I gave her a sad nod. "Anything I can get for you?"

"Maybe some other time. I'll be staying the night here, but I'll take care of that business later."

"Might not be a later if you wait? The festival has booked the town wall to wall. Best you get your space reserved now!" She said as she moved far more daintily than one would have supposed she could.

"The festival." I leaned forward and rubbed my face through the words.

"I love a good festival." Silah said, looking past my chagrin.

"No wonder it's so crowded." I muttered.

After a moment Silah kicked the table, jarring my elbow. I looked up at her with a scowl.

"Hey," she said, leaning toward me, "Get over it."

She stood and stretched lazily looking around the room, meeting the gaze of a few onlookers who had been admiring her from a distance. I could feel it, like hair standing up on the back of my neck, she was looking for trouble again.

"Let's go." I said, standing quickly, nearly sending the chair to the floor. "I'm sure the others are close by. Mr. Fangs. Yes, let's go there."

I grabbed her hand and moved quickly toward the door. She didn't have time to brace herself, which had her stumbling after me.

"Hey! What was that for?" It was her turn to scowl at me as we emerged outside.

"Uh, no. I don't like that look." I shook my head as I pulled her close, moving into the crowd and finally slowing my pace. "I've had enough demonstrations for one day. Don't make me put you away."

"Make me put you away? Ha! Like you could." She scoffed.

I gave her a dangerous look and she grinned devilishly in response.

We pushed on to Six Crates. My skin crawled as the guard patrols fell away and I was now lingering with the seedier side of Dowry. That sense of danger crept in again, much different than when we first moved in Dowry. I released Silah, who was searching the crowd with a smile, and gripped my purse, carefully eyeing those who got too close me.

So far, I'd been lucky. Six Crates seemed to hold no ill will toward me, but on one occasion Floki and Bromm encountered some ruffians and on another Danin and Sig had been accosted by yet another group. As I walked, I wondered if it was my turn, but the moment slipped past as I saw Mr. Fang's wooden sign in the close distance.

"I don't think I'll get over that name." I muttered to myself as I looked up at the sign.

I moved onto the porch and reached for the door when a familiar face rushed out the door nearly bumping into me.

"Excuse me." The young woman said looking up, then up some more, until the sun shining on her full in the face. She held up her hand, blocking the sun until she could see my face. "I know you! You're Sig's friend. You were with that other woman?"

Nida. The name popped into my head. I don't think I had spoken more than a handful of words directly to her. It wasn't surprising what Sig saw in her. She was attractive in a studious way, having a semblance of both purpose and self-assuredness to her. There was a moment as she burst through the door where worry lined her face, but it had disappeared immediately.

I nodded to her and glanced and nodded toward Silah.

"Ah, yes. Her. Hello!" Nida acknowledged Silah and waited for a moment. Looking a little uncomfortable. I looked down, realizing I was still clutching my purse in my hand.

"Is, uh, Sig in town?" Nida asked, looking between Silah and I.

"He is. I'm looking for him, too." I said, increasing the handful of words by a significant amount.

She nodded, again, warily glancing at Silah.

"If you see him. Let him know I'll be around here later this evening." She said in a clipped, professional tone.

I nodded to her and she gave me a practiced smile, the kind you give a someone you don't actually know, but want to remain on good terms with.

"Is this place any good?" I gestured toward the sign. "They know they're tusks, right?"

Nida looked surprised.

"You haven't been here?" She said, a touch incredulously.

I shook my head slowly.

"Come in, let me introduce you!" There was a tinge of excitement to her as she pushed through the door.

I looked at Silah, now seeing her agape, looking at me with a hurt expression.

"What?" I said, feeling lost.

"You are completely and utterly clueless, aren't you?" Her expression held as she spoke in a low voice.

It was clear that I had offended her and I was completely in the dark as to how. I pushed the door open and held it for her. She stood still for a moment, then shot me a bemused expression as she moved through the door. I followed her into the gloomy and blisteringly hot interior.

Beads of sweat had already sprung out on Nida's forehead as we moved up to the counter.

"Let me introduce you to Mr. Fang." Nida said, thudding on the countertop.

A half-orc man moved into sight from a series of cabinets. He was considerably smaller than myself, but still formidable. The most surprising thing about Mr. Fang was his easy smile. He reached across the countertop and I took his extended hand. I nodded with a smile as I shook his hand.

"Name's Hakaar." I said with handshake.

"He and his friends helped with the fire." Nida looked to me, "What was it? Over a month ago, now?"

I shrugged. I really wished that the others were here.

"Good work out there." Mr. Fang said gruffly, "It could have been really bad for business if that had gotten out of control."

"I did what anyone would do." I shrugged again, not sure how to take the compliment.

"Heh. Walk away and watch the place burn?" He laughed heartily at his own joke, "There aren't many people around here who'd go around taking on other people's problems."

There was knowing nod from Nida as she glanced at the half-orc.

"So, if you're planning on eating here, I'd suggest the Sunburned Chicken." Nida said, but then followed quickly turning to the half-orc, "But not too spicy."

Mr. Fang nodded and stepped away from the counter. Quickly putting prepared ingredients into a wicker basket.

"I best be off. I've got more errands to run." She said, excusing herself nodding to myself and offering an apprehensive smile to Silah. "Nice to meet you. Both of you. And I hope to see you and Sig later?"

I nodded to her and she smiled again, but this time it seemed more genuine.

Mr. Fang came back with the small prepared wicker basket. The chicken was crusted with red spices and a side of potatoes cut into oblong shapes and boiled in a belching kettle of oil, they had also been partially dusted with the same salt and red spices.

"It's not too hot, but you need some kick if you want an authentic meal." His grin widened as he said authentic.

I can't remember the last time I had authentic orcish cuisine that wasn't wrapped in the bundles we had take from felled Orcs. All I knew is that they knew their food and their spices and handled them in ways that humans simply didn't. After wolfing down half a chicken breast, I stopped to revel in the flavor. I looked wide eyed at the half-orc.

"Thish ish …" I stopped, swallowed, and spoke again,. "This is amazing!"

"Is it, now?" Silah said, noticing a slight edge in her voice.

I nodded toward her and turned back to Mr. Fang.

"This is authentic?" I asked, excited.

"It's as authentic as you can get without taking an orcish arrow." He said, laughing heartily again. "Let me get you an ale to wash that down."

If he only knew that I had actually taken an orcish arrow just yesterday. I thought with a slight smile.

He disappeared briefly to the back and brought a metal bound wooden mug.

"Wall Ale. It's swill, but it does the job." He smiled.

"So, why Mr. Fang's?" I said, feeling more settled into the half-orc's cheery company.

"I'm surprised you have to ask. But I can see you're not from around here. You have a bit of an accent." He said, waving his fingers in front of his mouth, like he was expressing a taste or smell.

"Fang is what they called me when I ran a cart. Not a nice name, but I got over it." He smiled with the recollection. "Little did they know it was great advertising. Everyone knew who I was soon enough."

I nodded.

"I don't see many of … us. Especially in successful places. Cheers." I raised my mug to him and took a gulp. "Ah, yes, that is swill isn't it."

"Not too loud. I can get away with it since I buy the stuff." He said with a smile, but a serious tone.

"Ah, I'll keep that in mind." I said, looking around the room at the patrons.

"I wouldn't say I'm exactly successful, but I enjoy what I do and I have great friends here. Nida is a gem, a great person to have on your side." He nodded, the words seeming to bring back some memories. "The people around here are strong, hearty folk, too. Not afraid of work. Perhaps a little too rough around the edges, in some cases, but still, good folk."

I grimaced.

"I am wary of big cities and, honestly, I don't know who to trust here." I shrugged, "It makes me very uncomfortable having all these eyes on my back."

He nodded, and briefly glanced between Silah and I, looking somewhat befuddled.

"I wouldn't worry about it too much. You've gained enough respect in the area to overcome most oversights." He said, simply, then continued with a stern look, "Just, don't step on that line of bricks out there just to the side of my building. It's … symbolic. I'd have Nida tell you the story sometime."

I nodded with my brow furrowed. I was sure I had passed it before, heading out the gate. I thought back to see if I had stepped on it in the past.

"There's a few things like that out here. Mostly heritage and folklore. Six Crates is an entirely different animal." He shook his head as he said it. "It's hard to know what drives them. A few of them dare come this way, but they're a different sort. Like a roughed up children trying to prove themselves."

"You do realize that you're confirming everything I've been worried about, right?" I said, my grimace deepening.

"Naw. You take this too seriously. It's between love and hate, not always one or the other. You seem like a man who puts his life on the line much of the time. You're more comfortable with things being black and white. Mercenary? A guardsman?"

"I used to be a soldier. I fought in the 10-years war quite a ways from here. Since then? I'm a bodyguard. I think." I looked into the mug.

"A man needs to know who he is, what he's good at. You'll get tossed around by life if you can't root yourself in that thing that makes you who you are." He said frankly, running his hand along the rough counter.

I nodded. It was a strange place to find wisdom, but I would take it where I could.

"We should be off." I thumbed a gold piece and put it on the counter. "Thank you for the fantastic meal and the wisdom. I will be back. Probably sooner rather than later."

I smiled and nodded at Mr. Fang who gave me a hearty smile and a nod as he leaned on the counter with both hands.

I held the door for Silah and we moved out onto the porch.

"Not a word. Not an acknowledgement. I swear, I don't know whether to feel sorry for you for being so completely incapable or beat you over the head for the affront!" Silah hissed as she followed me off of the porch.

I bristled with her words and backed away from her venomous gaze.

"The least. The very least you could do is introduce me." She said tossing her hands up, "And you had been doing so well, but no. You've completely reverted. You're back to being your socially incoherent self."

"But I …" I stammered.

"I am a lady. You seem eager to correct others, like, uh, Zig's grandpa. What's his name. Oh, Addict-something." She snapped her fingers, dredging uncomfortably through her broken memory.

"I'm sorry. I've been a little out of sorts since we came into town." I was gritting my teeth to the point that my head was starting to ache.

She leveled a threatening gaze with a wry half smile, "Oh, I thought it was when you were all starry eyed with that girl."

"Starry eyed?" I shook my head, putting my hands to my temples.

"Yes, I was there." She said scornfully.

I took a deep breath. She continued a barrage of insults, but I somehow detached myself from it. Perhaps I understood Silah better than I thought I did.

I moved forward and embraced her amidst the tongue lashing.

"I am sorry." I spoke quietly, my lips brushing against her hair.

She stopped speaking.

"It's like you forgot me." A hurt frustration lined her voice.

I sighed heavily.

"I'm not used to being the one who talks. It literally takes all of my focus to be social. I wish Sig or Bromm was here." I spoke quietly while continuing the embrace.

She quieted her aggravation and looked up slowly, her lips were a straight line and her eyes still scorned.

"Introduce me." She said, her eyes almost pleading, "Remember me!"

I nodded and released her, stepping back.

I could say the same. I thought sullenly once safely out of contact.

I heard a familiar voice call out my name down near the water's edge. Bromm was standing at one of the food carts holding a hand in the air with the rest looking on. I took Silah's hand and she looked up at me, restating her words through a simple look and followed along my side as began to walk toward the rest.

I understand that this isn't the last I'll hear of this. I thought.

"You're damn right it isn't." She echoed with a booming voice, saying it a tinge more playfully than her venomous glowing gaze let on. Her intimidating massive visage loomed just within the shadows, looking down on me.

I looked up from within my mind and shook my head with a grimace.

"Is everything well?" Bromm asked, looking somewhat concerned glancing between us.

"Just fine." Silah said, her voice bland.

"Sure." I echoed the sentiment.

"We were just getting some food." Floki said, pointing at the carts.

"I could use some food." Silah said, her voice tapering off.

"We can go back and get more from Mr. Fang's." I said, feeling cowed.

"More? Any would have been nice. That sunburned chicken that you ate in front of me did look good." She said, her expression blank, and he head cocked to one side.

A wry smile crept across Sig's face and Floki chuckled.

"Trouble on the homefront?" Floki muttered as he laughed.

"No trouble. What ever do you mean?" Silah looked at him holding the blank expression, "I'm barely here, anyway."

I ran my hand down my face and I caught the glare from Silah and dropped my hand to my side.

"What can I do to make up for it?" I pleaded to her, then looked to Sig, "I'm not used to being alone here. I was … preoccupied."

"It's fine, Hakaar. Not everyone is born with it." Sig's smile widened with the comment.

Heh, I shouldn't have expected help from this lot. I thought.

"What are you eating?" Silah glanced at Bromm and Danin then pointing at what was glued to the thin wooden stick in their hands.

"Fried that." Bromm said, gesturing to the line of misshapen globs hanging from the cart near us. A line of people were ordering the same.

"What is … that?" I asked.

"Hey, I'm talking." Silah said with a shushing sound then turned back to Bromm, "Is it good? And how much? Someone owes me lunch."

"A couple copper per skewer?" Bromm replied.

Tagaern stirred uncomfortably, watching this exchange. I realized that he was back to weighing my capability as a warrior as he watched the spitfire Silah play with me like a cat plays with a mouse. I looked on with a grimace, waiting for her to have her fill of torment.

She moved up to me and held out a hand. I pulled out a silver and pressed it into her palm. She looked at it with a furrowed brow.

"It looks lonely and I'm really hungry." Silah beckoned again with her outstretched hand.

I pressed another silver into her palm. She looked at it and shrugged, then moved up to the stand that was several paces away.

As she turned her attention from me and moved away, the tension drained out of me and I slumped forward.

I could hear bright conversation coming from the food cart as Silah chatted amicably with the patrons, using the conversation to work her way through the line quickly.

"How are you holding up?" Bromm's concern was genuine, but lined with mirth.

"I feel like I'm running as fast as I can." I said with a sigh, "Oh, Sig, Nida was looking for you. I saw her at Mr. Fang's. She said she'd be back there this evening."

"I've been meaning to talk to her. I have a feeling there's some trouble brewing. Did you see the gallows in Bowler's Green?" His face was pensive as he spoke.

"No. I completely missed that." I said, trying to recollect what had happened over the last couple hours.

"You really were in your own little world." Floki said, "It was pretty obvious."

Silah walked up, her mouth full of food, waving multiples of the crusted lumps on a stick.

"I really like fried that." She exclaimed through her stuffed mouth.

(Get to know Akeron.)

Hakaar - Chronicle 23.3 - Shadows of the Past

I sat on an available bench, feeling numb. The yard was bustling at Kellas House. The previous casual traffic had turned tense since the engagement and became a trigger for exodus. Traffic ebbed and flowed around me as I looked on blankly. It wasn't so much from the battle itself, but from the loss. I had looked on while Tagaern performed some ritual, putting the sword in Balrick's hands, then laying stones over his body. Thoughts tugged at me. While I knew the gods were watching, I felt that their magnanimous mindfulness over us lowly creatures was greatly overstated. How could these giants have been allowed in the heart of these lands? I thought of Kols then wondered, again, who needed whom more.

I had made an effort to distract the giant, but had failed and it killed one and almost another.

Silah was near, but standing alongside Amalia and Duncan, who were talking, doing their best to calm the travelers while the worry and paranoia mounted. Duncan had nearly completed donning his armor by the time the battle had ended. Ironically, he now had to wear it around while he helped the panicked travelers take to the newly cleared roads. I saw the looks on their faces, some were even unsure if there would be a Kellas House to which they would return. Duncan was level-headed, readily handing out refunds for the rooms he had rented until the population of Kellas House dwindled down to just the handful of us.

Silah sat next to me, picking at some of the blood that had dried in clumps on my green skin. I was somewhere distant. I wasn't even sure what I was thinking about. I was and inert mass, completely disconnected from the world flowing around me.

A thick, oily column of smoke had started skyward. I looked at it curiously, then with apprehension, as I realized its purpose. A gristly thought came to mind as I thought about how cooked orc smelled. I grimaced, thinking of the orc's expression of disdain when he saw me, then surprised as I nearly drew him in two. While a display like that from an enemy shouldn't mean anything, it reminded me of where I stood.

Us half-orcs need to stick together. I thought. I had said it before, but it was a reminder of the fragile balance between the world of men and the world of my distant kin.

"You should get cleaned up." Silah whispered to me aloud, her voice was kind and light.

I glanced at her, finding myself again. Amalia was sitting within earshot just beyond her and Duncan was approaching from the main building, finally finding the time to slip out of his armor.

I sighed, shook my head, then looked him in the eye.

"Son, before you get into it—because I can see it all over your face—realize that I commanded men during a war. I felt every loss on the battlefield, and, while it never got easier, I came to the realization that they, that we, had accepted this fate." He spoke, a bone-deep tiredness lined his voice, "It would dishonor their memory to hold the grief of their loss as my own burden. It is selfish to think you can save everyone."

His words came out forcefully. Whether it was just hard for me to hear or he was driving this home to calm something within himself, I wasn't sure. Silah rested her hand on my back, running her fingers lightly along on my shoulders.

"I would feel different if I come away from this battle with something more than a scratch." I said, looking up at him. I felt a challenge rising in me, but it dissolved into confusion having no enemy to fight.

"He did call to them to fall back." Silah said, her voice was high and thin; a practiced timber when being diplomatically submissive.

I caught Amalia's look out of the corner of my eye. She wasn't looking at me, though, her eyes had settled on Silah and she squinted and tilted her head. She seemed to realize that Silah wasn't exactly human. Silah's pinched my back and gave me a sidelong look.

"You're just making it worse. She's been looking at me like that on and off since this morning." Her voiced echoed in my head, "I had a talk with her about it. I think it might have made it worse."

I smiled with a subdued chuckle and Duncan paused and squinted at me.

"Let's get back to training." He said, looking warily between Silah and I, recognizing the silent exchange.

I stood and and looked toward the yard. Ironically, the lack of people milling about was unnerving. I tried taking Duncan's words to heart. Letting go of the memory of a man falling in battle wasn't something I could readily do. Especially when I felt responsible for their survival. There were very few times in the war where I could have been there to save another. I was the fledgeling in an elite unit, so I was usually the one being protected. Now, I was the protector, and it bothered me deeply that I had been unable to do my job.

"Back to it, then." I muttered.

I nodded to an introspective Amalia and moved toward the yard. Silah stood and moved with me to the training area.

"I will say, Duncan. Having a second set of eyes on the battlefield has helped me stay focused on what was at hand." I said with a nod toward Silah.

He nodded. I could still see he was wary about my reliance on Silah, but he gave a half-hearted smile and squared off with me, tossing me a wooden sword.

"That tussle out there was just a warm up. Show me what you've got!" He challenged, then lunged forward.

Evening came setting the skies ablaze. There were few breaks, but I could see there was a certain weariness settling into Duncan. Perhaps, he had finally hit his own limit. It was a marvel to see how much he held on to from his military days. This training, I knew, was as much for him as it was for me. I think that seeing Tagaern might have reminded him of where he could have gone.

Seeing his old friend again had also brought a haunted look back to his eyes. The demons he had kept at bay were closer than they'd been for months yet. Forgetting meant not seeing any reminders. I, and the others that Duncan had adopted, apparently were the purest remains of the war. Tagaern and Duncan had a different history, however. It was a history that Duncan had spent the last many months suppressing.

The tavern's bustle was subdued. A few travellers had trickled in, moving their way toward Hlofreden. Some were expecting more of the merrymaking, but the few who did come seemed surprisingly uninformed about the goings on from just earlier in the day.

It was just later that guards who had been working on the road came through. Muddied and blood splattered, from the messy job of cleaning up the bodies. It had been them that had lit the sky blackening pyres. There had been more casualties toward Dowry way, from what I overheard. There were plans to bolster the watch patrols over the next couple of weeks and keep a contingent at Kellas House as a "part of critical infrastructure". I'm sure hearing that would make Duncan happy. Embraced by the Princess herself with the potential of being controlled by yet another hand. The guards, exhausted from the effort were given free room and board and lined up for hot baths.

"I think I need some time alone with Duncan, Silah." We were sitting in the great room watching the guests busy themselves with their meals, doing their best to avoid the uncanny isolation Kellas House had dropped into. I had been stewing a bit over shadows that seemed to show up on Duncan's doorstop. Silah had seen it and looked at me with some concern. I realized that he was the one that listened to our stories and fortified us during our troubles, but I didn't know who was there for him during those times.

"You've changed my mind about what it means to be a warrior, you know?" Silah said as I stood from the table.

"How's that?" I said.

"I have seen bravado and conceit frequently displayed, but heart? And even compassion?" She shook her head with the words, "It has never been so obvious. These are the things that make great warriors greater."

She held out her hand. I took it, bent low, and kissed it gently.

"Take care of your friend." She smiled and her honey-brown eyes glistened, "Just like you take care of all of us."

"What do you plan to do?", I asked her while straightening up.

Silah looked around and shrugged, her purple dress woven with gold highlights glittered with the gesture.

"Perhaps I'll pry a little more into Amalia. She's overly curious for a woman of her … station?" She smiled wryly, "I'm interested to see why she's so curious. There's something about her."

I smiled.

"Most assuredly." I said, nodding, "And good luck with that. I would, however, leave the word ‘station' out of it. And, if you need to move beyond our bond. Feel free."

"All business." Silah scoffed. "Go. Take care of your friend."

I moved toward the back passing Keval who was busily bringing boiling hot buckets to the baths. I moved into the back toward where Duncan's study was. He sat in the small booth table just outside the kitchen with the officer over the small contingent of men. Duncan saw me and beckoned me over with a jerk of his head.

"Petreus, this is Hakaar, a fellow veteran the 10-years war." Duncan gestured toward me and the man moved to look toward me.

I recognized him from previous walks up and down this road, but I never had been formally introduced. I had kept to myself most times. The man was younger and a bit soft, though definitely not fragile. I couldn't imagine that that he had seen any real battle, or, perhaps, had weathered it more gracefully than others.

"We've met. Briefly." Petreus extended a hand.

I moved to the head of the table and took his hand, giving him a firm, but subtle, shake.

"He and his friends took care of the giants for us." Duncan said to Petreus, nearly imperceptibly perturbed.

"Giants. Can you believe it? If I hadn't seen them first hand, I wouldn't have believed a word of it!" The man-boy looked between us.

"My friends were going to investigate the source of them." I said, flatly. "I'm sure the report will make it to Dowry."

"Yes, well. Very good." He nodded and looked between Duncan and I again, feeling suddenly out of place, "It looks like you two have business. I'll go and tend to my men."

"Good to officially meet you, Petreus." I gave him a nod and waited for him to vacate the seat across from Duncan.

I leaned on the table pinched the sides of my head as the man-boy moved past and turned the corner. Both Duncan and I spoke over each other as he moved out of earshot. I grinned and motioned for Duncan to continue.

"It's like they'll give anyone that job." Duncan said, looking past me toward where Petreus turned.

"He's doing clean up duty." I chuckled, "It's the last job anyone wants to do. And you can imagine that the men he's leading here are only here because they got in trouble with the wrong people."

"Apparently, it takes a war to shape someone up. You know he's about five years older than you." Mirth traced his lips but barely touched his eyes.

"And look how bad I turned out?" I leaned back, raising my arms above me in a stretch then faced forward smiling.

I could see those shadows gripping at Duncan, clouding his eyes as locked eyes.

"Heh. I think we're going to need some Old Law and, yes, I'm buying." I said.

Duncan didn't stir.

I rustled around the kitchen then found the closet that held the liquor. The door had a sturdy lock, but swung free when I twisted the knob. I found the Old Law bourbon and grabbed some shot glasses from the cupboard.

Duncan was looking at his hands in the booth.

"Where's your … lady friend?" He said, having trouble with what to call Silah.

"She's got the night off. She's probably wearing down Amalia right now." I said with a grin.

I poured two shots, placing one in front of Duncan then picked up the glass. He looked at me warily.

"To friendship! May it shut the hell up and start drinking." I lifted my glass eye level to him and waited.

"I know what you're doing." He said with a somber look, fiddling with his glass.

I made and easy, toothy smile as I jiggled my glass in the air. Duncan grumbled and lifted his glass to clink gently with mine. We both leaned back for the shot, I didn't immediately swallow, letting the burn linger for a time before sending it on its way.

"Shooting means you're doing your best not to taste it." Duncan said with a grimace, "Didn't I teach you anything?"

"That deserves another shot." I said, lifting the bottle and pouring another round.

Duncan shook his head and grabbed the glass.

"My toast this time?" Duncan asked with a raised eyebrow.

"It's all yours." I nodded with a grin.

"To the future. May it not be as worrisome as the past." He said heavily.

We toasted then drank.

"That was a bit weak." I said eyeing him steadily starting to feel the tickle of the liquor at the very edges of my mind, "I'll give you another chance."

"I've got so much work to do." He shook his head at my offer.

"I refuse to believe I'm hearing the truth until you have at least three shots in you." I leaned forward sternly. "Come on, old man."

Duncan sighed heavily as I poured another round.

"We don't have to toast. I can tell you're not in the mood for it." I said to Duncan as I pushed the glass to him.

"No, I'd like to toast." He said, looking down into the glass, after a moment he shook his head.

"When I was young, I didn't expect to amount to much. There wasn't much of a chance to amount to much, either. It was a simple time with nothing but survival to test myself against."

He paused, his thoughts seeming too heavy to bear.

"It's a lie that the war lasted only 10 years. Did you know that? The conflict was in skirmishes. Both sides were party to it, too. I joined in, feeling my oats, doing the same as the others, raiding on the edges of the forest killing those who, I thought, sought to kill us."

"With all that picking around the edges, we began to cut into their lands. It was then that you could say that the Elven King truly became mad. Mad at the bullying and the constant encroachment into his heritage. The fight we had unknowingly been picking for so long had turned into a proper war."

Duncan shook his head and placed his fingers around the shot glass and lifted it.

"To who we are, both the good and the bad, and to what brought us to exactly where we sit." Duncan's eyes were red as he looked toward me.

"Here, here." I said somberly and touched my glass to his.

I tipped back and swallowed then watched as Duncan let the liquid meander over his tongue before he swallowed.

"I'm not asking for forgiveness when I say this, but I do believe that my own fervor helped bring you here. I like the man you are—the man you've become. But I was part of taking whatever life you had—before the war started—away from you." His glistening red eyes were still locked with mine, "You, of all people, should know that I had a part in destroying your childhood, all that you could have been, if the war hadn't happened."

I nodded, listening intently. Feeling the thoughts crawl around in my head. I wondered, myself, where I would have been. I would probably have been the next generation that picked at the edges and caused the 10 years war a generation later. Besides, I did like the man I had become.

I poured another round, a smile curling my lips around my tusks.

"This isn't forgiveness." I said, lifting the shot, "But I think you're probably the finest man I know."

I sunk the drink, not waiting for him to join me.

"Let's just say that I'm glad you were able to share your experience so I was able to avoid all that nasty morally gray business." I said with a smile, "When the mood strikes, you should try counting out the people who call you friend, even father, on your fingers. And, when you find you don't have enough fingers, you can use mine."

Duncan was still rolling the liquid around in the shot, watching it as I spoke. He let my words roll over him, taking them a lot like I took his words earlier: grateful, but with trepidation.

He blinked briefly, then rubbed at his face with his free hand, removing all signs of vulnerability.

"Eh, it is what it is, right?" He nodded with a genuine smile, tossing the shot back, "Thanks for grounding me."

He looked at me again, and a quizzical expression danced across his face.

"You surprised me the most, Hakaar. I didn't expect you to become such a gentlemanly sort. Whatever you think I did to make that happen simply isn't true. It was already in you. I may have helped with discipline and patience when it came to fighting, but it's something else entirely that made you so acutely aware of what is fair and right in the world." Duncan squinted at me. "You should go back and look for your family some day."

I looked sidelong at him.

"I was an orphan, they died when the war started." I stated frankly, my head swimming with the thought, suddenly rousing a pain that I didn't know existed. My hand trembled as I reached for the bottle again, feeling a renewed thirst.

"Oh?" He looked bemused, "I swore I had heard differently. War is strange that way. You're never sure what's the truth when you're in the middle of it."

(Get to know Akeron.)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 23.2 - And Experience

We moved quickly over the plains. Danin, regardless of both his girth and his height, he was positively graceful as he flowed over the landscape. I heard Tagaern call out from behind for me to wait up, he was already panting with the effort.

Another time, my friend. I thought.

"The driver appears to be dead, but the passenger is alive. I can see three orcs moving to him. I am not sure I'm seeing this right, but I think those are giants on the horizon." Silah was calling out the battlefield as she saw it.

This was part of what came about as Duncan repeatedly put my ability to push Silah out of my head to the test. I failed, repeatedly, but then Silah had started tapping into my senses as she had done before, but then then gave me information I may see—but not necessarily be paying attention to—on the battlefield.

Giants? I keened my eyes towards the direction that the orcs wielding rustic blades were streaming from.

I had never seen a giant before. Sure, I had seen the summoned titans, but giants?

A slight chill ran up my spine as I watched these towering beasts; one with a massive bow and another further out wielding something menacing. The giant with the bow was lobbing out arrows that looked like short spears at a furious pace toward the wagon. I grit my teeth. We would have to take any advantage of cover we could to stay out of sight of that brute.

"Don't worry, your friends are with you." Silah's voice eddied through with a practiced concern, "The man at the wagon is looks very bloodied. He might not last if we don't get there before they do. What are you going to do?"

I'll think of something when we get there. I thought.

I was still deciding on what was next, considering the battlefield was evolving as we moved.

"Two archers near the … large archer and another large one coming up from behind. He's carrying something big." Silah called.

I could see her inside of my head, standing in what looked like a bright silver chainmail dress, something that would have been impossibly heavy to wear, my vision was spread out in front of her, lighting up the usually dark cavern of my mind. She was musing over the scene, pointing at the forces as she called them out.

I'm fine. Just call them what they are. I thought, annoyed at the attempt to put me at ease.

"Are you sure? You seem particularly sensitive to all this." I felt a smirk ease from her, rising just above the pounding of my blood and footfalls.

I glanced over both shoulders. We were all here. Floki and Tenner were bringing up the rear. He seemed to be looking for cover to launch arrows from. Sig had cast a spell and was now hovering in the air.

"Poor Tagaern." I heard Silah whisper, "The battle will be done before he even gets here."

Want to give him a horse? I grinned slightly with the thought.

There was a slight huff from her, but, surprisingly, it seemed like she briefly considered it.

Massive arrows rained down on the wagon as the man ducked behind it. One burst through the cover and struck him, opening yet another wound. Silah was right, he was in a very bad way.

Arrows continued to pour over the wagon as we got in range, the two orcish archers had moved up near the well armored giant who was smoothly picking targets and launching the arrows downfield. He was terrifyingly proficient. The second gigantic brute was well on his way toward the wagon now I could readily make out the huge, brutish maul he was carrying. It might have been a tree with a mass of fused metal strapped to it.

The giant archer launched more arrows at the wagon before turning his gaze toward us, taking a well placed shot at the hovering Sig. I watched him writhe in mid air as the shot landed, then he winked out of sight. The massive arrow dropped to the ground out in front of me where Sig was hovering just moments earlier. I was concerned for a moment, then remembered his disappearing act from just last week in the old mines.

Bromm dodged one of the massive arrows and reared up with his musket, levelling off a shot at one of the orcs who had nearly reached the wagon. Flesh and blood ripped from the orc, but he didn't slow his pursuit.

"An archer is down." Silah reported.

I glanced over to see one of the orc archers crumple under Floki's rain of arrows.

I finally closed in on the wagon, flanking the man that I recognized as the man who delivered the wagon full of spirits from the Meadflower Distillery out of Dowry. He had just drunk a thick, syrupy liquid from a small vial, bringing some color back to his cheeks. He had a look of concern as I approached.

"I'm here to help. Stay behind the wagon." I shouted.

He was wielding a decent blade and shield, a man who had been tested in battle, but he was still very hurt. Even after my command, he held his shield high, showing no signs of relenting. Danin closed in as well, standing in front of the man, facing the two Orcs. I moved around the back to the remaining orc who was trying to flank us.

The orc was huffing toward me, his dark yellow eyes squinted as he scowled at my mixed countenance. I stepped from the cover of the wagon and roared as I drew Silah down through him. The blade sliced through his collarbone then popped through several ribs before it stilled deep in his chest. His eyes were suddenly wide, his mouth agape, drooling as he looked down at the blade before the light in his eyes began to fade. I roughly yanked the blade free as blood pooled around him. It was then I noticed a collar with a long braided leather cord attached to it.

"Interesting." Silah mused at the sight as I paused on it, her voice quavering as she recovered from feasting the orc's life energy.

An arrow from the remaining orc archer sunk deeply into me as I pulled back. I winced at the hit and immediately ducked behind the wagon.

The wagon itself gave me an idea. The horses were still attached, one still stirred while the other had succumb to its wounds. I blasted through the wagon pole with the greatsword, freeing it from the attached horses, allowing me to push the wagon on it's side as a shield from the onslaught of arrows. I half expected Silah to complain, but it didn't seem to make a difference to her.

I caught sight of Tagaern, who was getting close. I was watching the large arrows fall toward him, tearing through him as he got closer. I grimaced with each gut wrenching thud that penetrated his armor. He was bleeding heavily already. I waved at him to take shelter behind the wagon, but he continued to push forward, blade and shield at the ready.

Danin was tending to the passenger after he had taken some more blows from the incoming orcs. A shot rang out from Bromm's pepperbox and I could hear the sounds of engagement out of sight around the edge of the wagon. As I moved around the edge, I could feel the ground shaking as the towering giant with the maul had moved within a stone's throw away.

Floki and Bromm had focused their fire on the two approaching orcs. Danin struck the orc that had targeted the passenger, landing a cruel blow with his axe, but it remained standing. Each of the approaching orcs had these same tight leather collars, the braided ropes trailing behind them.

They must be captives. I thought. Forced to fight for these giants.

"And they're dead either way. At least they're going out fighting." Silah said flatly, then she sounded excited, "Siggy is floating above the archers!"

I moved to engage the last of the orcs, but as I did, Tagaern slashed through the last of them, sending the remaining orc gurgling to the ground. The passenger was laying on the ground and Danin knelt over him with Tagaern looking on. Danin sent out a burst of healing energy, closing up some of the wounds of everyone close. Unfortunately, it was far from making either the passenger or Tagaern whole.

"Balrick, will you live?" Tagaern reached out a hand to lift him to his feet.

"Aye.Thanks." The grizzled man had a mane of white hair that was streaked with blood.

"Oh my." Silah whispered excitedly, "Look what Siggy did!"

The orcish archer had taken an arrow from Floki, but it was the hulking beast that had slumped, falling forward, his eyes closed. I shook my head in disbelief.

"And the last orc archer is down." Silah said as Floki's last arrow laid him flat.

My skin was crawling. Floki was out of sight and away, but still hitting with pinpoint accuracy. His arrows had been flying over my head this whole time and I didn't even know where he was. The thought made me anxious. And with Sig's demonstration of power with the well armored brute. It gave me a new respect for both Floki and Sig. I was glad they were on our side. Tenner was bounding towards us. He'd finally allowed his wolf get into the fight.

"He's the last one." Silah said, her voice even, I could feel a smile followed by the sensation of her tracing her hands down my shoulders as she directed me to the encroaching giant.

The brute's weapon was enormous. I was horrified when he swung at Tagaern. There was a sickening series of pops as a blow from the side caught the already blooded man. His face was a ghastly pale, like he could see his end coming quickly. I had only just met him. It seemed ill-fated that we would have had such a short time together. He still stood, hands turning white from the intense grip on his weapon and shield.

Tenner approached and, on the backswing, the giant targeted the wolf, crushing it with a well placed blow. Luckily, the wolf survived the blow, but also looked close to death. The giant, unable to quickly bring the maul to bear quickly enough, kicked a foot at Tagaern but failed to connect. I moved to flank the massive being while Tagaern and Balrick struck with their blades. Arrows were also dotting the beast, as Floki focused all of his effort on the remaining foe.

Sig called out to me, and I looked up toward his voice.

"That one won't be down for long! Get a swing in and get over there before he wakes up!" His robe was bloodied, but I could see that the thrill of success lit up Sig's face.

I nodded to him. I could feel Silah bracing for the kill before us.

I slashed at the exposed back of the brute, laying open a gaping hole along the side of it's gut. There was a thundering bellow as blood and fat oozed readily from the wound. Silah shuddered, relishing the impact.

"One more should do it." She said with a sigh.

The bellowing brute looked for the source of the hurt and brought the maul down on Balrick, splashing his head and crushing his body into the ground. He kicked toward Tagaern again, but only managed to hit air.

It should have been me. I thought, clenching my teeth. It was supposed to focus on me!

I drove the blade into the Brute's back, shouting at it to get it's attention. The greatsword bit deep, gore and viscera gushed from the wound, slicking the battlefield, but the brute still clung to life.

"You need to get over to the other one!" Sig called out to me. "Quickly! I don't know how much longer he'll stay down!"

"No, no, no… he's not dead." Silah stammered, her voice filled with aching, "Don't leave. Don't!"

I was torn. But, my moment of hesitation was my answer as Tagaern thrust his blade deep penetrating the brute's vitals, causing it to shudder and sway, finally succumbing to it's injuries, rolling forward, almost crushing Tagaern and Tenner.

I gripped the nearly panicking Silah and moved toward the slumbering, well-armored giant. I laid the blade to its thick throat and swung with all my might. It's eyes snapped open as the blade caught on the thick neck bones, and the Giant grabbed at its throat, blood gurgling through. It took another well placed blow to remove its head entirely.

Silah trembled quietly in my hands.

"I … I saw its memories." She said, pausing a moment to recover from the rush, "This one had come through an Ether tree, today."

(Get to know Akeron.)

Hakaar - Chronicle 23.1 - Wisdom...

I was up before sun, swinging the practice sword at the log in the yard. It was the same log that Tagaern had been whittling down the day before and the practice sword was horribly unbalanced from being beaten and bent repeatedly. Subtle corrections with the blade while practicing my follow-through had been annoyingly difficult due to its condition. I'm sure that some could claim that wielding Silah was making me soft. But, no, I didn't consider having a good weapon as a matter of weakness, but of efficiency. Each strike let me bleed off some of that annoyance.

I could feel Silah wandering in and out of the range of our bond. She was taking her time, gathering breakfast, moving to and fro. This was giving me practice at compensating for, gods forbid, if I were ever to lose her in battle. It was a contingency, and as contingencies go, I had always leaned more toward being a pessimist. The repeated rush and ache of our bond being tested was very distracting, and I couldn't afford being caught off guard.

Duncan had frustrated me with our earlier exercises. He demanded that I try to push Silah back. It was clear that she could, on a whim, push me where ever she wanted me. Worrying thoughts were wedged in my head about the power she could wield over me. And it was something that I couldn't shake. But we had an understanding, at least, I hoped that we did. This stress, and the jabs from my friends about not being a veteran from the war that took my early life from me, had driven me to come out here early, slashing at a log with this ridiculous beaten blade.

I was stripped to the waist, sweat standing out on my arms, shoulders, and dripping from my face. The log and the blade's conditions had progressively worsened. This blade would need some tending to after this. It was barely recognizable from when I started. I hoped Duncan had a another or, at least, a quality blacksmith to right these wrongs.

Silah approached from behind, I could tell as she moved back in range of my bond. I did an overhead swing and lodged the blade into the standing end, watching the sword vibrate with the blow and turned toward Silah.


I sputtered as she withdrew the bucket. I fumed, glaring at her.

"You looked like you needed to cool off." She said with an unreadable expression, glancing past me to the abused blade that was still twitching from my strike.

I sneered at her, feeling genuine anger, then broke eye contact. She wasn't the focus of this frustration, even with how hard she sometimes tried to be.

A smile crept across her lips and I melted inside as she gazed at me with affection.

"I brought breakfast." She tilted her head and motioned toward the plates on the table. "Sit, eat with me."

I wicked the excess water off of my shoulders and arms then shook the remaining moisture from my hair. I moved over to the table and sat across from Silah. It was a light spread: overcooked eggs in a pool of butter, a steaming meat mash, and a few stale chunks of bread. I looked up at her with a pleading expression.

"It's hard to find good help these days." I said, poking at the nearly burned egg and the shapeless mass of meat.

"Do you like it?" She beamed and I attempted a weak smile in response.

"Sure, it looks... good?" I said weakly.

"Doesn't it? I watched him cook it. I am sure I could do that." Silah said, her eyes sparkled with excitement as she spoke.

"Uh, so, who cooked this?" I looked up at her, bemused.

"Harvey! That sickly looking Elven boy." She said with a smile.

I gave her a sidelong look, then glanced around to make sure no one was in earshot as she said this. I didn't remember a Harvey, but then I remembered who I was dealing with.

"Ah, Harney. I wouldn't learn from him. He, uh, isn't the best cook." I grimaced at the meal.

"He did seem a little distracted, but he was the only not working on anything." A thoughtful look crossed her face as she spoke, "This place is very busy in the morning."

I split the stale bread and hollowed it out with my fingers. I squashed the meat and egg together, pressing it into the stale husk and biting through. It wasn't ideal, but I'd make due.

"The others have started to wake up. I saw Brimm come down earlier, he was speaking with that … new guy." She said, with her brow furrowed while trying to recollect.

It was unfortunate, whatever made her forget between her bonds seemed to have forever damaged her recall of names.

Well, who knows? Maybe she had always been like this? I grinned to myself as I thought it.

There was silence as I bit through the pathetic, goo filled meal. Finding the meat was partially raw, but also crunching through a stray egg shell. I set the husk down on the plate and pushed it away.

"I'm not really hungry." I gave a long disappointed look at the meal.

"Are you're still upset about last night?" She looked at the meal I pushed away, then looked back at me with concern.

I looked at her with confusion, glancing at her sympathetic look and the food I just pushed away and smirked.

"No, that food isn't good. I can wait for someone who can cook." I said with some amusement.

"Yeah? What about that." She nodded toward the bent blade jammed into the head of the log.

I looked down, at my hands on the table. I, again, realized that I hadn't given her enough credit at reading my moods. It was hard to know when she was innocent or just playing innocent. Usually it was around human experience that she seemed to be wholly unaware, and I was a poor guide for that kind of experience.

"Duncan's training," I sighed, "With you. It's been eye opening."

She smiled kindly at that, but didn't comment. I was uncomfortable with this because it was basically me pitching my will against hers, and failing repeatedly. It seemed that when I was in combat, I was always fighting on two fronts.

"And…?" She prompted.

I shrugged.

"I'm trying to have a normal conversation. You mentioned that we don't have normal conversations, but you're making this very difficult." Her annoyed eyes burrowed into me.

At least she was trying? I thought.

"He's teaching me to keep my own mind when I need to," I said, trying a diplomatic approach, "But I can't. Your influence is too strong."

A restrained smile crept across her face and she reached forward and cupped her hands over mine.

"I adore you." She said, looking into my eyes, "I do feel that you are holding yourself back. You have great potential."

I smiled, feeling sheepish while a rosy warmth spread through my skin.

She continued, "You are not just a body for me to will around. We are together. I may get … passionate in battle, but I have never forced you forward."

I grimaced, feeling that I remembered things differently, but it had been true. She had only urged me on with words, not forcing me forward. I shuddered, just knowing it was a possibility made me anxious.

"Remember, I'm on your side. You need to trust me." She looked up at me with her fathomless honey-brown eyes, her hand still placed on mine.

I sighed, and smiled. She had a way of righting me when I was listing.

"And, don't mind, Siggy and the others." Her eyes were intent, "The war is a part of every inch of you. That, and your time with Dunnam."

"Duncan?" I corrected while chuckling quietly, spoiling the gravity of her message.

She shrugged, her brow pulling into a adorable little furrow.

The dining room had been stirring with activity as the sun rose. The smells from the kitchen wafted out into the yard, reminding me of the poor breakfast from just earlier. I moved to the well and drew the bucket for another dousing. Silah stepped forward with a smile on her face with her hands out, reached toward the bucket.

"Nope," I held the bucket back from her, "I'll do it this time."

"Oh, come now. This is something you clearly need help with." She gave a mock pout.

I grimaced at her then turned my back to her and poured the water over my head. Giving me another chance to shake off the aches from the last few days of rigorous training. After wicking off, pulling my hair back, and tying it off with a strap of leather, I joined Silah and we walked together toward the dining area.

The others emerged from their respective rooms, flowing out into the yard under the newly cresting sun. Everyone was strapped down with their gear, prepared for the trip out with the guard. Tagaern seemed fresh after the night, but there was a perpetual weariness tucked behind his eyes.

"We could go without the guards. There hasn't been an Orc on the road for weeks, from what I've heard." Floki said absently, looking over the courtyard, looking for the guards.

We walked to the front entrance, where I could see them off. Next stop was Dowry for all of us, but I had more work to do with Duncan before I joined them. The gate was open, looking out over the plains to the West.

"What is that?" Floki said.

I followed his gaze and saw a flatbed wagon bucking and weaving down the road as fast as the horses could carry it. The driver and passenger were panicked, holding on tight to keep from being unseated.

A dark shape lanced from the sky and thudded into the back of the driver, violently bursting through his chest. The wagon veered off the road, the wheels fracturing from the force. The whinnies from the hurt horses rang out thinly over the fields. I was stunned, I reached absently toward Silah as the scene played out.

"Duncan! We have trouble!" I shouted over my shoulder, and—glancing at the others, who were similarly agape. With a thought, she changed into her greatsword form and I began to sprint toward the scene.

(Get to know Akeron.)