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PostPosted: March 9th, 2009, 8:22 pm 
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She was so close that Kendath could feel her breath on his chin, so close that he could have cringed under the pounding of her gaze. He still refused to meet her eyes.

"The master used to say that. Did you know?" He laughed. "Trust me. Ask no questions. Give no answers." Another laugh. Was he rambling? "Of course, that was before he sent us out with poison in our pockets and daggers in our hands. We had nothing to survive with save his instructions and his word. One of us was always the decoy. One of us never left the castle alive."

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PostPosted: March 9th, 2009, 8:37 pm 
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Merrin retreated, sitting back on her heels. Momentarily Kendath was someone strange; a black dragon loomed and the ghosts of daggers flashed. She blinked and the apparitions were gone. A shiver from the cold of deepening night, and she wrapped her arms around herself. "I didn't know," she said. Almost, she was afraid to meet his eyes. "I don't know anything of...that."

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PostPosted: March 9th, 2009, 8:50 pm 
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"I took the bait, once," Kendath continued. He felt Merrin shiver against him and drew her closer, smoothing the folds of his cloak over her shoulders. "A banquet. Some kind of public announcement about a new heir, a new decree... none of us ever paid attention. I was a nobleman's son. Jhom was my father, and he turned on me. Accused me of treachery, something inane. Started a riot. Then the Duke fell over onto his plate, and Jhom was gone."

He smiled thinly. "Would you like to guess how I escaped with my life?"

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PostPosted: March 9th, 2009, 9:07 pm 
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Merrin shook her head against his shoulder with a murmured, "No." She almost followed it with, Stop, don't tell me any more, but instead was mute, waiting.

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PostPosted: March 9th, 2009, 9:14 pm 
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"Mercy."

Kendath let the word hang, and would have laughed again had he not caught the look on Merrin's face. He sobered, stilled. "Imagine it," he said. "Found traitor, then Meiltha assassin. And no, they didn't run a sword through me on the spot. No, no, not them. They waited. They wanted to give me a trial!" He really did laugh this time, allowed his mirth to escape him in one mirthless chuckle. Once more he glanced down at Merrin. "You think the old justice endures? Tomorrow?"

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PostPosted: March 10th, 2009, 1:10 am 
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Charged with: heresy, blasphemy, treason against the noble house of Vryngard. The truth was - "No," said Merrin. "The old justice died with Thorone." And she remembered a noble with green eyes and his knowledge of a certain Meiltha assassin.

How could she have been blind enough not to realize what Kendath risked, setting foot among the Renegades with Je'id ruling? How could she have asked him to follow her? Overcome, Merrin twisted to bury her head against his chest. "I'm sorry," she said, muffled. "I can't do it without you."

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PostPosted: March 11th, 2009, 9:59 pm 
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Kendath rocked back, overwhelmed, as Merrin buried her head against his chest. What had she promised? That he'd never lose her, that she'd always be there, that the gods... Oh, gods. Gods.

He no longer felt like laughing.

Once upon a time, there had been a cavern deep within the hell of the earth. She had died. He had died. He hadn't wept until she was safe in his arms again, hadn't wept until he knew - knew - that he could go on living. His hand had felt nothing. His hand recalled nothing, but now it hurt simply to look at it. It hurt to feel the wind on his neck, the exhaustion in his knees. In the fuzzy thud of his heart in his ears he could hear something cracking... crumbling...

His next breath swept Merrin into his arms. She was soft. Her lips were sweet. She pressed easily against him, and when Kendath pressed her closer still, he could smell her warmth, the perfume of cedar and snow. Another breath, and his hands were entangling in her hair - that copper cloud - and his mouth was tracing her jaw, downward to the sweet summer of her neck.

He wanted her. Gods, how he wanted her. This beautiful thing that was his and his alone.

Kendath released her.

"You're tired. I'm tired." He stood, offering his hand to pull Merrin up. "Let's get some sleep."

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PostPosted: March 12th, 2009, 5:30 pm 
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Their first kiss had been passionate. How could it have been anything else? The gods had vanquished death and offered redemption, and Kendath's tears had mingled with her own in that dark place, before it crumbled. Merrin had never wanted that kiss to end.

But this...Merrin didn't know what this was.

To fight it would have been akin to resisting a breaking wave. She closed her eyes and, for a time counted only by heartbeats, did not breathe; there was no opportunity. Her fingers traced his face. Her hands were small, like a child's. His hands - bigger - drew her inexorably closer. Merrin wrapped her arms around his neck as though mooring herself against a great unnamed sea. A gasp for breath - "Kendath" - and a convulsive shiver -

And she knelt once more in the dead leaves, as suddenly they separated. Merrin gulped the cool air, not hearing what he said past the roaring in her ears. His cloak had fallen somewhere. She was cold and tingling. Her hand only steadied when she took his, and with her eyes Merrin followed it up to his face. Something unfathomable was there, something she couldn't name. Breathe in - steady - breathe out.

Sleep? Was that what he had said? Merrin almost laughed. And suddenly she was smiling tentatively. "Oh, Kendath," she said, flushing, dropping her eyes. "I don't understand at all."

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PostPosted: March 14th, 2009, 11:10 pm 
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Kendath smiled and put an arm around her, his head still spinning with the taste of her innocence. "Bedtime," he said, steering Merrin toward the bedrolls. "Or you'll be falling out of your saddle tom - "

The air. It was beating.

Kendath dropped, pulling Merrin down with him, just as the air exploded in a roar of heat. Fire. Trees shrieked, their branches crackling, snapping...

The forest was ablaze.

And above them, talons curled, bursting through the smoke like a gods-hurled spear -

"Run!" Kendath cried. He seized Merrin's hand and flung himself to his feet. The roar became like dust in his ears, dissolving into a haze of - flames - trees - horses - The horses were screaming, and in the infernal storm he caught glimpses of their hooves raking the air, their coats shriveling. Kendath released Merrin's hand to make a grab for their halters. "Where's Adeila and Garthag?" he shouted, then choked as pain erupted scarlet in his head. The horse had kicked him.

Above them, he heard the screams of the dragon's fury.

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PostPosted: March 14th, 2009, 11:43 pm 
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Slowly, as though the flames would pause for her, Merrin turned. She looked up. The wind of the dragon's wings blew heat into her face.

Talons plunged. The scream of a horse split the air, deafened by the roar of a dragon. Fire flared, searing the air over her head, and Merrin dove as the world churned back into dizzying motion. A human voice - not Kendath's - was bellowing, shouting. How could there be so much smoke?

Smoke. Fire. White fire! "Stop!" screamed Merrin, rolling, eyes blurring at the painful pungency of the air. She flung out a hand. White flamed with hungry orange. A colossal thud shook the ground. Wind flung smoke into her eyes. A great reptilian head reared from the haze, and the fury of Merrin's fire found a target.

A second thud, behind her, and the wind of great wings folding swept Merrin off her feet. She coughed, on hands and knees in charred, dead leaves, dashing the blur of tears from her eyes.

"Merrin Dragonrider."

She jerked upright. The dragon's rider neared her, and the breath of the second dragon was hot on her neck. The smoke was clearing, and someone was holding a blade to Adeila's throat, and she couldn't see Kendath -

Merrin raised her hands, white fire fading. "That's me," she gasped. Oh, gods - "Don't hurt them!"

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PostPosted: March 15th, 2009, 10:04 pm 
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Kendath could have escaped. Both dragon and dragonrider pairs had their hands full with Merrin, eyeing her as worshippers might eye a fallen goddess. Kendath could have slipped away and returned much later, to rescue Merrin or - his calculations were relentless - to spread the tale of her death. After all, it did no good for the world to see both of them killed. Escape would have been the sensible choice. The cold choice.

Merrin's arms around him. I can't do it without you.

The haft of his dirk was icy beneath his hand.

"Allow me to render you harmless," the first Renegade was saying. He seemed to be the warrior type, broad shoulders and all. His blond hair stuck out around his ears. "I will then seat you in the saddle in front of me. Your lady friend will be seated behind you. My knife will be at her neck, should you try anything... untoward." He indicated the blade at Adeila's throat as though Merrin suffered visual impairment. "Then, I will proceed to - " He paused. "Hello."

"Hi," Kendath said.

"Are you the Meiltha?"

"No. Are you?" Kendath cocked an eyebrow. "It seems the sort of thing a Meiltha would do. Threatening the Chosen of the Gods."

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PostPosted: March 15th, 2009, 11:26 pm 
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Merrin's teeth ached in her clenched jaw. He was serious. He was dead serious. A dragonrider of Vryngard could look at her, her and the white fire, and see nothing but a heretic. A criminal. She stared, first at him, then at the dragon, whose bulk loomed behind him. It was black. Surely the dragon -?

Even as the rider's attention flickered to Kendath, the dragon lowered its head and growled, deep in its cavernous throat. Merrin froze.

"Him as well," said the rider, looking to someone behind Merrin. She could not see the merest flicker of uncertainty. It was as though Kendath had not spoken. The second dragon lumbered forward, long neck snaking around to eliminate the last avenue of escape.

Merrin couldn't look at Kendath.

The rider moved forward, a length of leather thong between his hands, and she recoiled. "No. I'll go with you. My word as a - a dragonrider. Only let her be." Adeila had done nothing, to be subjected to that. "Please."

It took every ounce of courage she had to hold out her wrists for him to bind.

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PostPosted: March 16th, 2009, 6:33 pm 
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Branches crackled. Flames leaped from the brush. Kendath could feel the smoke choking his throat, stinging his eyes, and struggled to stifle his coughs. The fire licked at the serpentine coils of the dragons. Their scales, fire-resistant, kept the inferno at bay. Their riders seemed to have all the time in the world. A pine groaned and reeled to fall, a fiery comet, to the ground. The blond Renegade never blinked.

He pushed Adeila into his dragon's waiting clutches, then approached with the leather. Kendath tensed. If he could spring at the right instant, get his blade to the man's throat -

A flash in the corner of his eye. Too late.

"No!" Kendath cried, lunging. His dirk never left its scabbard. A talon, more unforgiving than steel, wrapped around his torso. The breath of the dragon steamed against his neck.

He watched, helpless, as Merrin slumped to the ground. The tiniest of darts protruded from her neck. Like a fang.

"Your turn," the Renegade said.

Kendath couldn't tear his eyes off Merrin's prone form. The smoke or his heartbeat or something else entirely was flailing in his chest, and his voice was clawing, clawing. "What have you done to her?"

"Mandrake." The Renegade shrugged. This one was an older man, his face split by an ugly scar. He chuckled at the expression on Kendath's face. "No, not the leaves. Root extract. A sedative is all. She'll come around in an hour or so." He nodded at the blond, who knelt to tie Merrin's wrists. Then he slipped another dart into his blowgun. Kendath noted with idle irony that the weapon was of Meiltha design.

"This won't hurt a bit," the Renegade said.

He lied.

-----

Kendath knew this cold.

The cold.

It was legendary.

Bards spun tales of it. Cold. Cold. Sweet and profuse. The last lover you'll feel before the noose feels you. Kendath didn't have to open his eyes to know that he was in a Renegade dungeon. Curse it. He opened his eyes anyway.

And instantly regretted it.

"I like your cloak," the skull said. "It's warm."

"You're welcome," Kendath said. Croaked. Something disgraceful.

The skull wrapped Kendath's cloak more tightly around himself, then leaned back with a sigh and a creak of bones against bones. Kendath forced himself to his elbows, blinked blearily around at the cell. No Merrin. No Garthag and no Adeila. All he saw were these skeletons, sprawled in heaps upon the stone floor, the torchlight glinting on coins - eyes - carved into their faces. So food was a luxury here. Now that he thought about it, he couldn't recall any acres of farmland rolling around the lake. A sorry mill or two, perhaps, and a few scrubs. Shadows of Vryngard's splendor.

Welcome to Rival Falls.

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PostPosted: March 17th, 2009, 1:40 am 
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Shadows hemmed a smoky, torchlit courtyard. The great bowl of the sky overhead pressed down, and the whispers of dragonwings were like bats. There were more dark windows than light.

Too close to the stuff of Merrin's nightmares.

"Je'id! The Lord of Vryngard! I want to see him!" she shrieked at the Renegade. Every step he dragged her was a fight. She jammed an elbow back at his stomach, kicked -

"Ow! Little *beep*!" A blow to the side of her already throbbing head made it reel. "You'll see him in the morning! And that's if he's good and ready! Javier, those darts?"

Another rider reached for his belt pouch. Merrin felt the grip on her bound wrists tighten. How dare they? How dare they? Heresy, blasphemy -

White exploded.

Hardly knowing what she did, Merrin whipped around, feeling fire at her fingertips. The big Renegade was sprawled on the cobblestones. She let it grow, let her vision blur with it. Her heart was pounding in her ears. Her voice was shrill. "Now. I want to speak to him now."

It seemed - past the white - that they exchanged a glance. The one, the big one, got slowly to his feet, eyes on her all the while. "We'll take you to him," said the one called Javier.

What must she look like? Her vision blurred and swam, and Merrin's knees tried to buckle. While she was making demands - "No. Bring him here."

One disappeared into the dark streets of Rival Falls. Slowly, Merrin let the fire fade, keeping a watch on the one that remained. The one with the darts. When her muscles loosened past feeling like a drawn bow, scraps of leather fell charred from her wrists.

He watched her, too, but did not move when she went across the courtyard to fumble at Adeila's bonds until they came undone and then slump to the cobblestones, pressing fingers to the drumming in her temples. Adeila.

"Oh, gods, I'm so sorry," she said. "I should have explained - I never thought it would be like this, never."

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PostPosted: March 18th, 2009, 3:15 pm 
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Adeila had always thought she had a rather high tolerance for discomfort. Her needs were fairly simple - food, drink, a few hours of sleep. The aching of her limbs from days of travel, the hunger due to rationing their limited supplies, and the exhaustion from long days and mostly futile attempts at mending Kendath's wound had been unpleasant, yes, but she'd survive. She was coping.

The persistent throbbing that filled her head at the present, however, was really pushing it too far. Idiots, using mandrake root as a sedative. It didn't grow anywhere near her home, but she wouldn't have used it if it had. She'd heard enough about its side effects to know that there were far more suitable alternatives to be found. Even for prisoners.

Belatedly, she registered Merrin's apology and absently waved it off. It was hardly Merrin's fault, the situation they were presently in. She flexed her hands, glad to finally be rid of the tight bonds.

"I was rather under the impression," she said dryly, "that only the Meiltha punished followers of the gods."

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PostPosted: March 18th, 2009, 6:42 pm 
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"Me too," said Merrin softly. The one fire in the middle of the courtyard faded before it could meet with the light of the torches. The remainder was darkness. Somewhere high above, the eerie shriek of a dragon's call fell into a cold shiver down her spine.

Keeping one eye on the remaining dragonrider - watching her - and the other on the dark exit to the courtyard, down which the big one had disappeared, she moved closer to speak in an undertone. "The one who's coming - Je'id - is a traitor to the Meiltha. I know it. He knows I do. If he can persuade them that I'm..." she trailed off, swallowed once. Wrapped her arms around herself. "You saw. Heretic. Traitor." Gods, would the pounding in her head not stop? "Adeila, I don't know what they're going to do to me. Or - you - for being with me - but I'll try, I'll try to make them see you've done nothing. Some of them must believe, still - they have to."

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