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PostPosted: February 21st, 2009, 2:40 am 
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"You've no reason to apologize," Adeila assured her. "You can scarcely be expected to control your dreaming, especially after what you have endured. You are actually doing surprisingly well, all things considered."

She slowly stood up and retrieved one of the water flasks, then handed that to Merrin as well. "Now, eat. All of it. It'll do you good, regardless of how hungry you actually feel."

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PostPosted: February 21st, 2009, 3:47 am 
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Merrin took a long breath. One of the horses stamped and snorted, and the sun made halos around the jagged shapes of the trees. Yet here she sat, drained before the day had even begun. You don't know where you're going.

It hurt to take a bite and chew, hurt even when she dropped her head into her hands and pressed her fingers to her temples. If only she could curl into a ball and close her eyes until the persistent throbs went away. If only, if only...

The last mouthful went down somehow; Merrin was too tired to argue it. She climbed to her feet. The hard glitter of distant Amarinth's towers asked: Where are you going, Merrin? Where are you going?

She wrapped her arms around herself, and when she spoke her voice only trembled a little. "I don't know what to do."

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PostPosted: February 21st, 2009, 9:35 pm 
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At the end of the three minutes Adeila had taken to calm Merrin down, Kendath had counted to ten more times than he could count. He counted to ten one more time, just in case. Then he swiveled around.

"What you need to do," he said, and went nearly weak-kneed with relief when he saw that she'd dried her tears, "is grow some common sense. Why do you want to go to Rival Falls?"

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PostPosted: February 21st, 2009, 11:10 pm 
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Like flame behind the distant mountains, the sun lit the caps of their peaks with crimson. Like the fire that had blackened Vryngard's ramparts. Merrin felt her fists contract, opened her hands and stared down at them, then dared to raise her eyes to Kendath's. "He could destroy them," she said softly, only realizing the truth as she spoke it. "One word, one word from him, and Rival Falls will fall like Vryngard - there'll be no Renegades left - and they don't know, Kendath! They'll follow him to death, and he will lead them to death!"

Her voice still shook, though Merrin was beyond tears. She inhaled long and deeply, tremblingly, before she tried to speak again. "They have to listen. Some of them have to listen." Was it only true because she wanted it so badly? Again she opened her hands and felt them tense into fists. "Gods, why am I here if not to make them listen? What is this for -" it was harder to unwrap the fists this time, and spread her hands palms up so white fire glowed flickeringly above them "- but making them listen?"

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PostPosted: February 22nd, 2009, 11:23 am 
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Kendath turned away, overwhelmed. He'd seen it in Merrin's eyes again, glowing with white fire. That relentless optimism. That dumb determination. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

When he turned back around, he was too tired to compose himself. Too tired to control the shaking in his own voice. "What if you're wrong?" he asked quietly. "What then? The gods abandoned you once. They'll do so a second time. And a third. And a fourth. As many times as it takes to suit their grand design. What if Je'id turns you over to Ironlegs - what if they charge you with witchcraft, burn you at the stake - what then?" He took a deep, shuddering breath and thrust his hands out before him. He heard himself laugh. "I won't be able to save you, Merrin. Not anymore."

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PostPosted: February 22nd, 2009, 9:02 pm 
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Merrin flinched, and the fire died. She let her hands fall. For a long time, she was without an answer; the procession of what ifs Kendath had begun continued in her mind a long time after he'd fallen silent. At length, the somber bleakness in his face was too much.

A few steps, and she reached to gently take his hand, bandaged and charred, between her own. "If they had really abandoned me," she said, looking up at him and aching to find something, some flicker of hope, "would I be standing here?" Her thoughts had been plagued by the same doubt. How could the gods have let it - her defeat, her death - happen? Why had they deserted her at the moment when she needed them most? "They didn't abandon me," she said, and only knew it was true as she spoke it. "They gave me you instead, when my faith wasn't enough."

She could no longer look up, and dropped her eyes. Her fingers traveled along his, crippled, scarred. "Kendath, do you think I'm not afraid?"

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PostPosted: February 24th, 2009, 7:48 pm 
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"You'd be a fool if you weren't," Kendath said, "not that you aren't enough of one already." He winced. He'd meant the words to be gentle, teasing, a kind of apology for his outburst earlier, but they'd tumbled out of his mouth anything but. He looked down and tried closing his hand around hers, but the dead muscles refused to obey.

One last attempt. "You'd willingly sacrifice for this?"

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PostPosted: February 24th, 2009, 8:46 pm 
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"It's no sacrifice," said Merrin. "Not compared to -" Not compared to everything she'd almost given away, deep in that underworld she still visited by nightmare. She nodded. "Yes. Always."

He should have known the answer to that. He should know better than anyone that Merrin had only one thing left to give up. She took a long breath, and could not control the spasmodic tightening of her fingers around his. "As long as you'll come with me. Please."

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PostPosted: February 28th, 2009, 7:42 pm 
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"Of course I will," Kendath said, and he wasn't happy about it and Merrin was still being an idiot, but what was there to do?

A few strides carried him to his horse, which had wandered off to nose the undergrowth. A tug on the reins brought it back. He offered it a handful of corn from the feed bag, glancing back at Merrin as the beast sniffed his hand. "I know a road. A detour through the mountains once used by the armies in the old wars. I've never traveled it, but I saw it on your father's map. The way will be difficult and cold and will delay us for another three days at least." He stated it matter-of-factly, as he knew Merrin had already made up her mind.

He swung himself onto the saddle, then glanced back at his companions. "Ready to go?"

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PostPosted: March 1st, 2009, 10:07 pm 
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It was cold, and difficult. The ravages of frost and snow attacked with a vengeance, and Merrin's new cloak struggled to combat the onset of early winter. Dawn and the ashes of a fire found her waking to shiver, on the first morning after their descent into the mazelike barricade of mountains.

But it did wake her.

With Adeila's help, Merrin slept. If her sleep was restless, she did not remember what had disturbed her come morning. If she shivered on waking, it was merely the cold. The pure, blinding white of the snow that layered their path and encrusted the towering mountain walls was far more piercing when she saw it through eyes not heavy with fatigue. Piercing, too, were the breaths of raw cold air, and with those to keep her wide awake, Merrin was aware of every incline they climbed and every slope they fumbled their way down. Every step was a step closer.

Merrin was not at all sure what lion's den she fought to enter. If she had been allowed to lie awake at night, her dark fantasies might have changed. She was not quite able to forget what Kendath had said. What if Je'id turns you over to Ironlegs - what if they charge you with witchcraft, burn you at the stake - what then?

By the fourth night, a swoop from the heights of the peaks might have taken them down to the foothills, where the rushing Seiren thundered down, emboldened by glaciers, into a gorge carved by its steady pounding. That was the night Merrin first saw the silhouette of a dragon against the twilit sky, and her spine prickled so that she shivered once and looked away. Afraid of Renegade patrols now?

The next day there were three, first farther away and then closer, and the evening found them sheltering under the protection of a thick copse, meant to shield from a dragon's searching eye.

Merrin couldn't sit down.

First she wandered to the peak of the nearest craggy foothill, then shuddered at the feeling of exposure and retreated, pacing among the sheltering trees. What would she do, merely walk in as though she were the same dragonrider as ever? Would anyone even listen? She must get to Je'id. She would not be treated as a criminal. But what was she to do?

It felt like the action of an idiot, to give herself up so meekly; and at the thought, Merrin wondered if being an idiot were the only way.

Finally she folded into a position, cross-legged, in the little hollow they'd tied the horses but not dared to start a fire, and let her restless fingers toy with the carpet of dead leaves. "Kendath," she said, "would it be stupid of me - us - to just...walk in? Do you think they will know me on sight?"

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PostPosted: March 2nd, 2009, 11:54 am 
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Kendath did not respond immediately. He sat under the sheltering boughs of an alder, his knees drawn up to his chest, his cloak wrapped around his shoulders. He sat facing the place he knew to be Rival Falls, as though his stare alone could force it to reveal the answers that they so desperately needed.

As a group, they'd climbed a crest together and gazed out upon the land below. The foothills rolled out onto an ocean of grass, waving its silver foam to a spangled sky. To their left, the Seiren tumbled out from the gorge in a spray of what could have been stars. It kept tumbling and tumbling, down the piedmont stairways, until finally it emptied into a lake at the base of the foothills, where a peninsula of trees shielded the glistening waters from view.

Rival Falls, on the lake. One more day, and they'd be there.

The night was comfortable. The wind, though cool, was a welcome respite from the white fury that'd pummeled the last few days. Earlier that afternoon, Kendath and Adeila had foraged near the Seiren and found clusters of wildberries, plump for the picking. The fruit sat happily in his stomach now. It was wonderful, a delicacy compared to the bread that'd begun to mold during its exodus in the saddlebags. A streamlet gurgled at the edge of the dell, where the horses nosed clumps of the greenest grass Kendath had seen since Amarinth. The horses' coats gleamed in the darkness. It'd taken hours to comb out the burrs.

A cry echoed out into the night, like the wail of a great sea leviathan. It was a dragon's call to its fellows, and Kendath's heart clenched at the sound. He drew his knees closer to his chest. Every bone in his body ached, afflicted by a cold impossible to shake off. His mind conjured a dream of golden sands and laughing sunlight. Irritably he flicked it away.

He looked at Merrin. Her face was pale, haggard, and infected with shadows. Adeila's administrations had done for her sleep what it was failing to do for his hand, but if Merrin had anything to show for it, he couldn't tell. With a sigh he pulled his cloak over her shoulders, wrapped an arm around her shuddering form.

"I think," he said, and couldn't believe he was saying this, "it'd be stupid of you not to walk in. If you creep in like a criminal, they'll treat you like one. But if you walk in openly, like the Chosen you are..." He shook his head and tried to imagine Je'id throwing them a royal feast. He couldn't.

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PostPosted: March 2nd, 2009, 3:30 pm 
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Merrin let her head fall onto his shoulder, leaning into his arm around her, and closed her eyes. "Then I will," she said. The last light of evening, shining through her eyelids, made her think of fire. White fire. She opened her eyes. "I'll make them see. I'll make him listen to me. He was always a coward, from the first, and I have white fire." She didn't know whether the reassurances were for herself or for Kendath.

Wind whooshed through the treetops like a dragon's breath. The patrols would be flying high and far, to give warning the moment attack came. Surely a party of four on horses was not worth their time? But if one got close - "We'll have to be careful tomorrow," said Merrin, swallowing past the tightness in her throat. "If a dragon gets near, they'll know me."

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PostPosted: March 2nd, 2009, 4:37 pm 
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Kendath nodded and looked down at her. Her eyes seemed to glow in the darkness, their own blaze of blue fire. He wanted to hold that blaze in his mind forever. Here Merrin was, a warm comfort beside him, and yet he couldn't shake off that feeling of loss. After tomorrow, everything may change. He may never see her again. Could he say it?

Another cry pierced the night, a lament of unspeakable agony. Kendath tore his gaze from Merrin's face and turned it to the direction of Rival Falls. He could all too clearly imagine the dragons, wheeling high above the treetops. Their wings caught the moonlight, and in their eyes glittered the light of the stars. His heart clenched once more.

"I miss him," he heard himself say. "He was... cruel. Terrible. But I'd give much to have him back."

Too late now. Demon would have laughed to hear him.

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PostPosted: March 2nd, 2009, 7:09 pm 
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Merrin snuggled closer, as though by doing so she could make the ache in his voice disappear. "You're lonely," she said. She knew about loneliness. "It's hard. Dragons...they take a part of you. When they're gone it feels like that part...that part's gone, too."

She remembered Demon. A glow of blood-red eyes and the threat of fire bubbling over like a volcano. Demon had been part of Kendath. What part? The part that came out with his daggers, and retreated when he kissed her? Why did he want that back?

It hurt to think that Kendath had her - always - and yet she could not be everything he had lost. Merrin cast her eyes down. "It's not lost forever, that part," she added, more hopeful than sure. "I think...when you lose something, you gain something too." But what did Merrin know about this? What had she ever lost, like this? Helpless, she sat with her head on his shoulder and ached to make him stop hurting. "I'm with you, though," she whispered. "Always, Kendath."

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PostPosted: March 8th, 2009, 11:35 pm 
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Kendath stared straight ahead and tried hard - so hard - not to look down at her. His entire world, warm against his shoulder. "You are my life," he said. His voice was flat, expressionless. "And I'm about to lose you again tomorrow."

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PostPosted: March 9th, 2009, 6:33 pm 
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"Oh, Kendath, no," said Merrin, straightening so she could see his face. His cloak was heavy around her shoulders. Of a sudden, her throat was tight. "You won't. You won't lose me." Because that meant she would have lost him, too; and Merrin had no one else.

He made it sound so hopeless. There had to be hope, even here. She leaned forward to look him in the eye. "The gods will protect us, Kendath. If you can't trust them...trust me."

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