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PostPosted: February 16th, 2009, 3:00 pm 
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She'd stopped counting her trips to the sharp bluff. Every time, the hazy rays of the sun - which was an indistinct halo attempting to batter through the cloud cover - made her squint through the rising clouds of dust from the mines. It was nearly useless merely to look, time after time, at what dull glitter of Amarinth's spires could be seen. And yet she didn't stop.

Merrin trudged back into the thicket of pines, stirring dead needles with the toe of her boot. They'd led the horses in until the ground dipped into a hollow, and now the beasts were standing, heads down, most sleeping and one tugging idly at the weedy undergrowth.

Sleep. Perhaps she'd try it. With a shake of her head - no Kendath yet - for Garthag and Adeila, Merrin sank down with her back to a tree and leaned her head against it, closing her eyes briefly. The itching stopped, but little else. She opened them again. Above, spindly branches encroached on a dull, burnished sky. A lukewarm breath of wind made the pine needles rattle.

"Last time we were in Amarinth," she said into the lethargic silence, dropping her eyes to look at Adeila, "Prince Feldwar got it into his head to throw a banquet. For me. Something was...wrong with him." What had been wrong? He hadn't been quite sane, that was certain. "We left - it was dangerous - and they tried to stop us. That was...two weeks ago, maybe." Gods, it had been two weeks. It felt like eons.

She tried a smile. "They might not be so friendly, this time. But I don't really like banquets anyway."

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PostPosted: February 16th, 2009, 5:40 pm 
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Adeila nodded absently from where she was leaned against a tree of her own, eyes closed. She was rapidly learning, through both stories and firsthand experience, that very few places held promise of a warm welcome for this group of travelers. She would have been more surprised if Merrin had told her not to expect any trouble.

Svit was somewhere up higher in the tree, harrassing a squirrel by the sound of it, but she couldn't bring herself to scold him. She needed this opportunity to rest more than she was willing to admit. She was not utterly exhausted, but traveling all day and tending to Kendath's hand in the evenings - slow going, even with the aid of magic - was beginning to take a bit of a toll. And speaking of rest...

"You have not been sleeping," she said, opening her eyes to look over at Merrin. It was not a question or an accusation - simply a fact. "Not enough, anyway. You cannot expect your body to recover if you give it no opportunity to do so."

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PostPosted: February 16th, 2009, 6:00 pm 
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Merrin stirred the dry, cracked pine needles with a forefinger, not looking up. Too soon for another bout of pacing up and down, squinting through the haze at Amarinth?

"Nightmares," she said. "It'll be better once we're there." The dark and the cold, and the snow floating down from a vast black sky over the campfire. Would it be better? She didn't know. "No one sleeps well, traveling. The ground's hard and it's cold and..."

Logic provided a mooring point for dangerous thoughts. It was true: no one slept well. "Surely you haven't found it the same as - a bed, or home?"

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PostPosted: February 17th, 2009, 6:21 pm 
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At first, he was worried only about the blood. The stab had sent scarlet spurting onto his hand - a surer sign than any that Kendath was guilty of murder. Eventually he wandered into a public bath house and dunked his kerchief into the first wash basin he laid eyes on, after which he retreated to an alley and scrubbed away until the stains were gone.

But it wasn't until he returned to the gate that he began worrying in earnest.

The guards had doubled their watch. Every man exiting the city was now subject to full inspection of identity and property. Kendath turned and ducked when he spotted another patrol marching his way. They were scanning the streets, their swords rattling in their scabbards. In all likelihood Amarinth hadn't seen this kind of security in months. And to think... for want of one peachy nobleman...

Kendath looked down at his loot. An inspection would single him out faster than any bribe could save him. Time to pay a visit to the marketplace.

Peachy Nobleman's coin purse was a marvel of a fortune. The purse alone, a velvet sack boasting of golden embroidery and sewn rubies, could have afforded a sword. Kendath sold it at the price of two. He left the marketplace with his own purse filled to the bursting.

Peachy Nobleman's rapier was yet another marvel, with a hilt of gems and a pommel of solid gold. It fetched a pretty bargain at the armory, where Kendath restocked his knives and picked out, with some regret, a dirk, a weapon simple enough to wield left-handed. Adeila's nightly ministrations kept putrefaction at bay, but still his hand showed no sign of healing anytime soon.

By now the gray drizzle had sputtered out, and the sun was blazing overhead. Kendath's purse had found some reprieve as his shoulders were now bent with four heavy cloaks tied around a bundle of stockings and woolen coats. After all they'd been through, hypothermia was hardly a glorious death.

He could do nothing now but wait, and watch the sun slowly droop in the west.

Dusk descended. A haze of smoke smeared the sunset, and a gust of wind scattered the fine film of ash coating the streets. A crowd festered at the gates - a surge of people eager to be home before nightfall. Kendath climbed to his feet from his spot under the eaves and, shouldering his pack, picked his way toward the line. He'd neither slept nor shaved well for days, so in the hustling crowd his haggard appearance could pass him off as an ordinary vagabond.

There was fear. There was a moment of uncertainty when the guards asked Kendath his name, and Kendath lied, and the guards asked to see his possessions and - "My, what have you been up to this afternoon?"

And then he was free, released to the dimly torchlit road that flickered into the darkness of pines so close ahead. Kendath groped around before he discerned the shadow of the bluff jutting over the road. For a while he could only swing his pack to the ground and sit, faint with hunger and exhaustion. At length he struggled to his feet and, shouldering the bundle once more, began to climb.

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PostPosted: February 17th, 2009, 9:07 pm 
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She could have had a torch from their little fire - for that matter, she could have kindled fire between her hands - but Merrin had a faint inkling that secrecy was not to be had, standing atop a ridge holding a light. So she padded out between the trees, the wisp-thin waning moon illuminating her footsteps very little, and merely listened.

A few times at dusk, she'd heard the calls of an owl, but when twilight had slipped from the horizon, all had fallen silent. No wind rattled the pine branches, or tugged at her tunic. Her senses tingled, keyed by mounting anxiety. The road was barely a fainter ribbon of grey snaking from distant Amarinth's gates, and it was empty. Merrin's heart sank.

She was turning from this last of her myriad trips out to watch for him, when the scraping of boots on dirt filtered up through the stillness. "Kendath?" she said before she remembered secrecy. If it wasn't him - but just then he looked up. "Kendath!"

The moment he cleared the top, she seized the strange lump of a bundle from him and pressed her fingers into his hand, tongue loosened by relief. "Ah, gods, it felt like you were gone so long - was anything wrong? What about Feldwar? Will we be able to get through?"

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PostPosted: February 17th, 2009, 10:40 pm 
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Kendath shook his head, and before Merrin could speak a word more, he pulled her close and kissed her - hard - on the lips. The bundle swung, hitting them both in the legs. His knees nearly buckled at the impact. At length he released her and, reclaiming her hand in his, began trudging toward the spark of campfire.

The sight of it - the flickering flames, the quiet horses, his seated companions - sent relief surging through his knees, which promptly surrendered to the bed of pine needles. He braced his canteen against his chest to unscrew it. He took a long quaff, tried to speak, failed, and drank again until the parched pain receded from his throat.

"Here," he said at last, a croak, and jerked a crumple of bloodstained parchment from his belt. He pressed the notice into Merrin's hands - Wanted: Merrin Dragonrider - then rose and stumbled to the horses, from which he retrieved his pack and stumbled back to collapse once more. It took him a full minute to untie the strings left-handedly, but as soon as he did he yanked out a slice of jerky and scarfed it down. Strength returned with food. He gestured at the notice. "I found it posted outside the city hall. What do you make of it?"

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PostPosted: February 18th, 2009, 12:57 am 
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Merrin blinked. She didn't know if the face staring back at her was a good likeness; it had been so long since the last time she was presented with a mirror. The lines of writing beneath were smudged from their sojourn in Kendath's belt. She teased out the worst of the creases and spread it flat.

By the time she'd read it twice over, Merrin's lips had stopped their tingling. Suddenly she was tired. "Heresy?" she said. "Treason - what treason? Against Vryngard? Claims to be the Chosen of the Gods?" Ten thousand gold? Who did they think she was?

It took a third perusal to notice the cracked, broken seal on the bottom corner. Merrin coaxed the emerald green wax into an identifiable shape. A dragon, upward-soaring with wings spread, bounded by a circle.

Merrin dragged the back of her hand over her lips. "I don't understand," she said. "I haven't done...anything."

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PostPosted: February 18th, 2009, 1:14 pm 
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Kendath chewed the rest of his jerky and stood to peer over Merrin's shoulder. Whoever had sketched the picture knew her face well. The eyes were too large and the cheeks too rounded, but the face on the notice was indeed Merrin Dragonrider. Anyone in Amarinth could pick her out in a second.

"Does the name Je'id mean anything to you?" he asked.

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PostPosted: February 18th, 2009, 3:19 pm 
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"How does he come into it?" demanded Merrin, twisting to look up at Kendath. By all rights it should be Je'id's face that was worth ten thousand gold!

Kendath didn't remember, she could see it. "The first time you came with me to Vryngard," she said. "Tall, green eyes - handsome, I suppose. Noble dragonrider idiot. We danced, me and him." She tapped the green seal absently with a forefinger. "He's the bloody traitor! I saw him again, in Ironlegs' camp during the siege. Right there! As though Vryngard never mattered to him at all!"

He'd been the worst for little peasant girl. Merrin grimaced. "You remember?"

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PostPosted: February 18th, 2009, 7:02 pm 
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Perhaps Kendath did remember. The name sounded familiar, and he did have a vague notion of hair like spaghetti and eyes like cucumbers. While he'd rather flay his memory of every nobleman he'd ever encountered, a decade of skulking about in manors had trained him otherwise.

"This man called Je'id is responsible," Kendath said. "Apparently he's the new ruling power of Vryngard."

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PostPosted: February 18th, 2009, 8:14 pm 
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Merrin leaped to her feet and whipped around to stare at him. "Ruling?" she said, aghast. "No! He can't be! They must not know -" She broke off, staring again at the crumpled piece of parchment, at the wax silhouette of a dragon. Charged with: heresy, blasphemy, treason against the Noble House of Vryngard - "Oh, Noble House of Vryngard be damned!" she exploded, hurling it to the ground.

Ah, gods, she was so tired. Merrin raised her fingers to her aching temples. How could she go back, with such a price on her head? The whole world was suddenly vast and menacing. Riversmeet had not been safe, Amarinth was not safe, Vryngard housed Meiltha, and now even the corrupt Renegades were ready to declare her apostate and blasphemer. "There's nowhere else to go," she said, raising her eyes to Kendath's. "There's nowhere else - but what will they do to me?"

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PostPosted: February 18th, 2009, 11:39 pm 
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Kendath bent to pick up the disgrace of a notice. Ten thousand gold. Ten thousand. Not even the heads of Renegade generals were worth that much. His gaze slid down to the wax seal, which he'd just now noticed at the bottom. There's nowhere else to go. Slowly, deliberately, he felt the parchment crumble in his hand. He threw it into the fire, where flames surged forth to devour it. He watched the words burn. Heresy. Blasphemy. Treason.

His knees gave way once more, and Kendath sank to the ground. He let his face fall into his hand - his single, sorry hand. "I don't know," he whispered, and neither knew nor cared if Merrin heard him.

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PostPosted: February 19th, 2009, 1:38 am 
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There was silence, while the fire crackled, and while Merrin stood and defied the dark sky to close in. Of a sudden the expanse was stifling.

When the words Wanted: Merrin Dragonrider had long ago been ashes, she sat down beside Kendath, folding her legs under her and drawing together the edges of the old green cloak. The crescent moon hung framed by brittle pine branches, a silent observer. Merrin wanted to ask it, Why? Why do I have to keep running away?

Instead she looked across the fire at Adeila and Garthag. "I'm sorry," she said. "For - for Amarinth not being safe - for...everything." Where they held the cloak around her shoulders, she could feel her hands contracting into fists. "I won't let him. I won't let him do this. I won't hide." Now she wasn't sure if she spoke to them or to herself.

A glance sideways, at Kendath, and with a pang she recalled his exhaustion. His hair, dark and cropped, hung over his face, and at first she reached to brush it aside, but instead her hand fell to the ridges and pits of his scarred fingers. "At least there wasn't a banquet this time," she murmured.

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PostPosted: February 19th, 2009, 11:07 am 
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Kendath responded with a laugh that sounded more like a choke. But it wasn't until he raised his head to stare at the fire that it all sank in.

He twisted to gape at Merrin. She looked very, very serious. Incredulity loosened his jaw. "You're still going?"

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PostPosted: February 19th, 2009, 11:49 am 
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"Do I have a choice?" said Merrin softly. The undisguised shock she could see on his face made her quail. What will they do to me? "If Amarinth has news by now," she continued, "all the Renegade and neutral cities will, and the Meiltha have been hunting me since Vryngard. Maybe...maybe some at Rival Falls will believe me. It's the best we've got."

The best, and by setting foot in Rival Falls she was welcoming condemnation if not worse. If there was irony there, it did not amuse Merrin. "The best I've got," she corrected, and wrapped her arms around her knees to hug them close. She could not quite meet Adeila's eyes, and looked away before Garthag's. "I won't ask...I mean, you don't have to come." She didn't look at Kendath.

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PostPosted: February 19th, 2009, 1:19 pm 
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Kendath was back on his feet. He looked down at Merrin, curled in front of the fire as though she might fall apart, and could only release the breath he'd been holding in a long, heart-to-ground sigh. The bundle of clothes he'd brought from Amarinth sagged dejectedly against the ground on the other side of the campfire. He crossed over, tugged free a cloak, and brought it back to drape over Merrin's shoulders.

"Get some sleep," he said. "We'll discuss it tomorrow."

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