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DRAGONMOUNT

A WHEEL OF TIME COMMUNITY
Taymist

Strengthening Ties & Making Stuff Go Boom - (Open to BT, Band, & WK)

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"We can go into the Stedding? Are you two going?"

 

 

Arinth shrugged. “It makes no difference to me,” he said, trying to sound casual. It came out gruff. He shifted his focus to the woman speaking. He had seen her drinking with Arkin the evening before. Anyone that could keep up with the scout was worthy of his respect. He took in her hard features, the scar going up from her eyebrow to her hairline and her gold hoop earrings. For a moment he caught a fleeting impression of who she really was, and he felt something stir. He shifted his gaze, reeling internally, and cleared his throat.

 

"Let's go then. Better not hold proceedings up or the Sergeant will be on our backs...again."

 

Arinth glanced back at the man she was referring to. He knew the man. He was of equal rank himself but there was no point in mentioning it. He wasn’t running this show. He didn’t want to be the one in charge. The less he had to manage the better. That is not why he had come. He nodded his agreement and caught a curious glance from Arkin.

 

"So, we're not staying inside the Stedding,"

 

Arinth grimaced before he could regain control of his face. The Black Tower was good. They were on the same side. But how much would that count for when they went insane. There were three of them. It didn’t seem like it would be that much of a stretch for at least one of them to go crazy today. If that were to happen, he would be as helpless as a big hairy baby. Best not to dwell on it he tried to convince himself.

 

He knew the stedding was up ahead but did not know where. He could see no visual difference. He was strolling along casually one moment and the next he stumbled. A strange feeling swept over him. He glanced around and noticed the others had sensed it too. It felt as though he tumbled back in time to his childhood, wrestling with his friends and pilfering delicious snacks. A time of innocence and security. He noticed Ely stumble and almost took a step towards her before he stopped. What could he offer? Why would she welcome his presence? He saw the wolfkin step to her and shifted his gaze away.

 

“That was a bloody strange feeling,” he muttered as he reached Arkin.

 

The lodging was further away than he had anticipated. What was the point of making a gateway miles away from their destination? He wondered grumiply He pushed those negative thoughts away. Those that had made the decision had made it for a reason. He would have to place his faith in that. He fell into a steady pace. Arkin moved easily at his side like a breeze through the trees. Arinth glanced at the other banders around him and took notice of those who held their own and those who struggled. He helped with the training of several of them and it was important to know which ones needed to work a little harder. They would take it as punishment, but it wasn’t. His job was to prepare them as well as he could and to protect them. Sometimes that meant tough love. If that is what it took to keep them alive, he would accept their grumbling and dislike.

 

After a time they finally reached the work area. Arinth took a moment to regain his breath as he drew in deep breaths. He needed to dedicate himself a little more to his own conditioning it seemed. Instructions were handed out and Arinth stepped forward to help with clearing the debris. The Black Tower men were there too. Don’t say anything, his mind thought. He found himself speaking none the less.

 

“So which one of you is the craziest?” He asked.

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"Why are you glaring at me?!" Tris' voice rose several octaves as Ely, unperturbed, continued to monitor the miscreant carefully.

 

"I'm hoping you'll spontaneously combust," she retorted, her tone caustic. A fine eyebrow arched delicately, adding extra emphasis and daring Tris to get clever. "Now sit, be quiet, and eat that food until someone tells you otherwise." Tris made an affronted noise but Ely ignored the youngster, preoccupied once more with her own food. Like most soldiers, she'd learned to eat with quick efficiency. There was a good chance you'd miss the opportunity otherwise as some higher-up was bound to find a better way for you to occupy your time.

 

And I need the energy after that run, she reflected. Tris had borne up well to begin with but Ely had been forced to grab her by the collar and half carry, half drag her the final mile. She'd never been more thankful for the self imposed extensions she'd heaped on top of the stamina training Beleos had handed out. It seemed to her the journey had been deliberately planned and she was moved to wonder just how many Wolfkin, and wolves, had followed their progress to the Tracker Lodge. Quite the opportunity to size up the other factions and take their measure. Strategically sound planning on someone's part.

 

Finished with her repast, Ely took a long draught of fresh water from her flask then gingerly tugged the thick leather cord from her hair. The headache that had plagued her in the morning had worsened in the aftermath of her unexpected grief letting, and having her scalp pulled tight was not helping. Glossy chestnut hair tumbled across her shoulders, its weight falling forward across her fingers as they massaged her temples slowly for a few minutes. She felt in dire need of a moment's reprieve in the midst of so many strangers but there was no point wishing for what one couldn't have.

 

Straightening and rolling her shoulders, Ely's attention shifted towards her erstwhile companions, her expression diffident. There had always been something about Arkin that had put Ely at ease. His almost childlike air of enjoyment about everything was enticing and couldn't help but make one smile. There was no unwelcome attention to fend off from that quarter and as a result, they'd taken to enjoying a drink together when their off duty coincided. She wouldn't say they were friends. Not yet. But comrades-in-arms at least. Her dark eyed gaze slid to the other man. Arinth she knew only from a distance and she didn't yet know what to make of him. There was a darkness, a hint of torment in his eyes that touched her. She'd seen it in other fighting men. Amon had that same look. Still, she was reserving judgement. Men tended to be a disappointment in their reactions around her and Ely started by expecting that. On rare occasions, one of them surprised her. 

 

She'd thought about joining the men to eat but didn't wish to intrude on their easy camaraderie. Instead, with Tris in tow once more, she'd chosen a spot near enough to the other Banders to not look standoff-ish but far enough away not to risk a rebuff. She was glad enough of that space while she composed herself and listened to Rhyanon's instructions for their work details. 

 

"Tris, go ask Rhyanon what tasks she has for you. Maybe you can help with kitchen clean up. You don't want to be lifting heavy rocks all day." For once, Tris simply agreed and ran off to speak to the Wolfkin.

 

Ely sauntered slowly over to join the growing knot of Black Tower men and Banders. She was curious to see how the channelers would utilise their Power for such a mundane task and simultaneously hoping that none of the Band would let their nervousness get the better of them when...

 

“So which one of you is the craziest?” Arinth vocalised, what she judged to be, an unintended question given he looked a bit poleaxed that the words had somehow escaped his mouth. 

 

Burn me!  Ely moved forward quickly, leaning her left forearm nonchalantly on Arinth's right shoulder and let loose a ripple of silvery laughter. "A fair question indeed. What do you think, lads?" Her grin encompassed all of them, including the Banders, "Which of us is the most crazy for volunteering for this particular job? And after last night's efforts too. Gluttons for punishment indeed. Does anyone care to wager on the answer?"

 

It was sufficient to set up a chorus of raucous banter and ripostes amongst most of the men but Ely kept her right hand casually on the hilt of one dagger anyway. A clear enough warning if anyone was determined to take Arinth's words badly. Light! and just what do you think you can do with daggers against multiple channelers, my girl? That was a question she had no immediate answer to. 

 

"What in the seven hells was that?!" she breathed the incredulous question into Arinth's ear, not taking her wary, watchful eyes off the men in the black coats. "If this goes sideways, Amon will have our guts."

 

 

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The walk was nothing new.  Nox had spent more time traipsing around cities.  The only difference was there were roots and bushes to contend with instead of people and garbage.  It was rather refreshing.  Ful and Mer followed along or at least, he assumed they did. 

 

Once to their destination, Nox would have preferred to get straight to work but instead they offered up refreshments and Nox declined their hospitality.  He just wanted to get this done.  One of the Band was there with them.  "Which one of you is the craziest?"  The mere question made Nox's head snap in his direction.  He hated that word.  He'd heard it one too many times.

 

He was about to answer when a girl stepped in. She easily covered up the mistaken words.  Craziest to volunteer.  "None of us volunteered."  Nox said with a smirk.  Nox chose, instead of taking offense at the intended words, to chuckle.  "But I'm more crazy than them.  Been at it longer.  But the taint is gone.  You have nothing to fear."  Nox knew first hand the difference in before and after.  Saidin was so clean now.  That sticky residue made him sick to his stomach.  But he had touched it before.  Damage was done.  He knew that. 

 

Nox wanted to change the subject though.  "So where are we digging this hole?"

 

****

 

[[ ooc:  pretty sure it's cleansed if not I'll retract my bits but pretty sure that's the right time line. ]]

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Arinth cringed inwardly as he heard his own words. He had not intended to speak them out loud. If it had been a different bander, he would have smacked them over the head. He couldn’t really do that to himself though, at least not without looking like he was the most unhinged of them all. This was all Arkin’s fault. If the man hadn’t been wandering around meeting new people and making friends, he would have been able to anticipate Arinth’s stupidity and find a way to prevent him from saying something so incredibly rude. Arinth made a note to have a word with him later.

 

At his words, a presence appeared quickly at his side. He tensed for a moment, not knowing who it was or their intent. He relaxed slightly when he recognized the bander from earlier. She might not like him, but she was infantry. She would have his back. For now, at least.

 

She answered his question quickly and smoothly. So quickly in fact, that any surprise the men from the Black Tower felt, they were able to quickly conceal.  Arinth slowly released the breath he had not realized he was holding. He did not relax fully though. Her hand was at her dagger. It could just as easily be used to poke him in the side as it could be used against the Asha’man. Women were crazy in the best of times and did things like that without need of a good reason. He had given her a good reason. She could have his back and stab it too. It was best not to relax.

 

One of the men answered with a chuckle that he was not crazy and that the taint was gone. Arinth smiled back at him. It was just the kind of thing a crazy person would say. How could the taint possibly be gone? Nothing to fear. Arinth joined in the laughing of the others. He was starting to feel crazy himself.

 

As the conversation shifted and others began talking with each other he felt the woman lean in close.

 

“What in the seven hells was that? If this goes sideways, Amon will have our guts.”

 

A shiver went up his back. Had her lips brushed his ear or had that been his over active imagination? He was not used to having anyone so close.

 

“Easy,” he said slowly. “I was just breaking the ice.” He offered what he hoped was his most reassuring smile. Movement began around them. Arinth looked around and took his last bite of food. The food had been surprisingly good.

 

“It looks like its time to get to work,” he said as he dusted his hands.

 

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Having made sure all was in hand inside the Lodge, Rhya was on her way to assist with organising the building of the extra store, knowing intuitively that she'd only be in the way at the well. At least so she'd thought until she caught the comment that was tossed into the quiet of the clearing, like a rock into a still pool, by one of the Banders. She could almost see the ripples it created and her nose twitched uncomfortably with all the emotions pouring off the group standing about 25 yards away. Two-legs could be trying, they had no self control. She paused at the bottom of the Lodge's broad steps, wondering if she'd have to intervene, or even call on Owen's authority. She really didn't want to resort to that. The tension was so heavy in the air around certain members at the centre of the group that even if Rhya didn't have heightened senses, she was sure she would still have felt it. 

 

This situation wasn't altogether surprising, considering the mix of men and women involved. None of them, particularly the 'kin, were entirely comfortable or relaxed around men who could channel. Why should they be given all the long history of that type? It would take more familiarity with each other for them all to overcome natural prejudice.

 

But these particular men are also allies, and allies who have proven themselves, Rhya took a moment to adjust her mental dialogue, well...maybe not these exact men, but others from their Tower. Despite her natural inclination to agree with the sentiments which the Banders were likely grappling with, she also understood in part what it was like dealing with the imminent threat of madness. Every Wanderer they brought to the Stedding had come face to face with such madness to one extent or another during their Howling. A different type of madness but no less terrifying, she acknowledged. Then of course, there was the challenge of old tales coming to life and people's inability to comprehend what was right in front of them... she knew how that went. Hadn't the Wolfkin suffered the slings and arrows of that misfortune too? Ostracised, accused, attacked...yes, she could empathise with these men from the Black Tower.

 

Thankfully, the woman she'd spoken to briefly earlier in the day intervened, deftly redirecting that split second of impending disaster into humour and chat...amongst the rest of the Banders. Rhya watched the black coated men though, waiting for their response and barely suppressed a sigh of relief when Nox spoke, putting the best light on things with apparent ease and amusement. She knew he spoke truth when mentioning the Cleansing of Saidin. Watchers and Trackers of the 'kin had been present that day and so word had come back to the Stedding of the incredible events they'd witnessed along with rumours of the apparent results. The local wolf population that remained in the vicinity had confirmed the veracity of those reports. If that hadn't been sufficient, Covai himself had admitted that Saidin was clean to Karoan just yesterday, looking more than a little bemused about it.

 

"So where are we digging this hole?" the man's question was Rhya's cue to impose a subtle reminder on the whole group. Maybe it would make them think before speaking in future.

 

Stepping out from the shadow of the building she caught and held Nox's eyes with her golden ones, and inclined her chin in thanks for his restraint, quite certain he would take her meaning. He was sharp that one. His answer had been a deliberate choice. Whatever he felt personally, it seemed he understood the importance of this Alliance. Or perhaps it was nothing to do with such high ideals and he simply didn't care to make an issue of the matter. Either way, she was appreciative.

 

"You can dig anywhere across the north east end of the clearing where you're standing," she intoned clearly, smiling slightly. "There are several water sources converging there so it should be possible to tap one of them without too much trouble. Our diviners say you should hit water at 100-200 feet. Storm Leader Covai and Under Commander Amon will be pleased to hear how everyone's mucked in together." She let that final remark hang for a second then, satisfied that things were in hand and hostilities were avoided, Rhya turned her steps westward to see how the rest of their motley crew were doing.

 

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Breaking the ice? Breaking the ice?! Ely's jaw clenched and she wondered how much trouble she would actually get into if she punched this lunatic. Stabbing a fellow Bander, and an Infantryman at that, really wasn't good form. But maybe if she just broke his nose a little bit?

 

She turned her head away from the Asha'man who'd been speaking, deciding that he wasn't going to do something crazy like obliterating them all with fireballs, at least not today, and that it would be safe to give her full attention to the man beside her. Only to find her tempestuous glare snagged on a pair of eyes the colour of storm clouds in summer; all blues and greys with dangerous depths. Slightly dazed, her breath catching at the unexpected closeness, Ely tried to dredge up the words she'd been about to speak. Usually when she was nose to nose with someone it was because she had both daggers pressed to sensitive spots and an intention to do damage. This wasn't that. She stepped back as if scalded. And then Arinth had the nerve to smile at her as if she was the unstable one! Irritation flared, obliterating whatever had temporarily disabled her brain.

 

"You're welcome."

 

What had made her expect any thanks? She shook her head in disbelief and stalked away.

 

The decision had apparently been taken about which patch of ground to clear so Ely joined in the effort to move some of the larger obstacles. No point leaving large missiles around. When those men started to channel, who knew what would go flying through the air? It was back breaking work and the only saving grace was that the area was relatively small. 

 

By the time the Banders were finished, Ely's shoulders were aching and the pounding at her temples was back in earnest. The Asha'man moved forward to commence their excavations and Ely took up watch from a convenient vantage point, noting as she did so that some of the Wolfkin had unobtrusively joined their ranks. Massaging her head, she wondered idly if they were there out of genuine interest too or whether they'd been sent to keep an eye on all these unruly visitors. Unruly... the word had her eyes shifting of their own volition, searching the crowd until she realised what she was doing and snapped her focus back to the channelers. This was starting to feel like a very long day indeed.

 

 

 

 

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 “Come out to help the wolfkin,” Arinth said he heaved a shovelful of earth over his shoulder.

 

“Get out of the citadel for a while.” A second shovelful flew over his shoulder.

 

“Get some air.” The dirt continued to fly.

 

“Get some sun.” He grunted as his shovel struck rock and he worked to get it loose.

 

“It will be good for you.” He laughed at his own naïve foolishness as he got under the rock. He had been talked into coming so easily. The rock was bigger than he had originally thought. Squatting down, he secured a firm grip and strained to lift the rock. His muscles tensed and bulged with the effort. He had gotten softer in his time since his promotion. Too much paperwork. He increased his efforts and the rock broke free. With a heave, he lifted it up and set it on the ground outside of the hole. Struggling to regain his breath he climbed out after it and sat down. He dragged his forearm across his forehead to wipe the sweat away.

 

He saw Ely working nearby. She was working harder than the others around her. Her face was set, and her focus was firmly on the task at hand. His thoughts returned to their earlier encounter. His attempt at a joke had fallen flat. She had not found him as charming as he had hoped. He had never had much luck with women though. After a curt reply she had walked off, shaking her head. He had been too hypnotized by the movement of her body to think of any kind of clever remark.

 

There had been a moment before that though. She had locked eyes with him, and he had felt a gravitational pull to her that was beyond his power to resist. There was more in those deep, dark brown eyes than he had ever anticipated possible. In an instant, everything else around them disappeared. The other people faded from his awareness. Their voices were engulfed in a muffled silence that was broken only by the loud pounding of his heart.

 

As quickly as the moment had happened it had ended. She had stepped back and turned her eyes away. There had been a moment though. Hadn’t there?

 

With a heavy sigh he pushed himself back to his feet. There was work to be done. He threw himself back into the task. There was a certain point, if he exerted himself enough, that all thought fell away. There was only the work, the dirt, the roots and the rocks. Bend, lift, heave. He settled into a steady rhythm. As the sun moved through the sky the work gradually progressed.

 

Some time later he was interrupted. A fellow bander was standing in front of him. “Take a breath Arinth. Go get a drink. You can’t ignore the heat on a day like this.”

 

Arinth nodded. The man was right. He climbed out of the hole and went off to find a drink. Before he realized what he was doing he was walking back with two drinks. The water was colder than he had expected, and it was refreshing. The others had all gathered around to take a moment to rest as well. He saw Ely’s gaze move over the other workers as he approached.

 

“Looking for a drink?” He asked as he held out the drink. He refrained from offering his earlier grin again.

 

Before she could react, there was a call from the hole and then a rush of movement. It sounded like something unexpected had been discovered. He stayed where he was. Whatever it was, it held little interest to him compared to the woman that stood in front of him.

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“Looking for a drink?”

 

The voice, when it came so fast upon the heels of her involuntary search, should have surprised her. That it did no such thing was of itself enough to sound warning bells. The fact that it acted like a touchlight on every nerve ending she possessed should have been enough to have her running as far and as a fast as she could. Yet there she sat, belying both of those facts, no movement made save a half turn of her head towards the sound as time turned liquid around her. 

 

It seemed to be the most natural thing in the world for Arinth to be standing right there, at her shoulder, and yet, it wasn't. Why was he not with Arkin? Or any other Bander, save her? She didn't miss the speculative glances being thrown their way either. Was this another ill thought out wager amongst those who, for stupid reasons best known to themselves, took her disinterest as a challenge of sorts?  Brief liaisons were common amongst the military orders where life could be cheap and comfort taken wherever it was found. Life was there to be lived, opportunities seized. She understood it, made no moral judgements, but that was not a road she'd chosen often. Not at all since joining the Band. 

 

Only this time Ely was not disinterested, quite the opposite, and that was something she was wholly unprepared for; something that threatened her cocoon of self reliance. She came to her feet quickly, spurred to some kind of action by that grudging acknowledgement, but any response was forestalled by a commotion from the dig site. She couldn't see what was happening through the press of bodies around the opening but it was clear there was a great deal of excitement. 

 

Once more she stayed put, unable to leave this spot. What witchery is this? Her fingers touched to her temple, wondering if the dull ache was a symptom of some worse illness that could account for her behaviour... and then her ingrained Ebou Dari politeness snapped her back to the moment. She stretched a hand out to take the drink being offered, careful to avoid any touch. Or any eye contact.

 

"I wasn't," she replied quietly, holding back a sigh. Honesty could be such a burden. "I was looking for you." She didn't elaborate. "But it's welcome, my thanks. Last night's efforts are still making themselves known."

 

There was no smile on his face this time. She almost wished there was. She could resist that kind of superficial charm easily. This steady, serious regard though... Just because she was experiencing some kind of mental aberration didn't mean he needed to be aware of it too! Ely did the only thing she could. She turned her back under the pretense of observing unfolding events at the well. 

 

"Do you think they've found something? I can't see what it is if so. These hills are ancient. Could be they've uncovered an important artefact." She felt Arinth move up to stand beside her and glanced sidelong to see what he thought. He wasn't looking at the well though, he was looking, rather carefully, at her. 

 

"Best go see if we're needed!" There was a hint of desperation in the words and she didn't wait for a reply. 

 

 

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

 

 

Ely's long legs covered the intervening ground quickly, bringing her to the back of the crowd in seconds. By dint of judicious elbow shoving, she worked her way forward. Their Sergeant, the Asha'man and the Wolfkin were all gathered around an unusual looking box, peering cautiously at the contents. 

 

"It's a stasis box," one of the Asha'man was explaining to those closest. "Very rare. Unlikely that anyone alive has ever seen one. Save maybe an Aes Sedai," he amended.

 

Ely craned her neck for a better sight of whatever the box contained. One of the Wolfkin carefully removed what looked like a book, confirming after a brief look at fragile pages that it was a diary of some kind. The man started to reach back in but one of the Asha'man laid a light warning hand on his arm. 

 

"Best not. Those are objects of Power. An angreal, several ter'angreal, and something I don't recognise. Whatever they are, we know not what they do."

 

The Wolfkin nodded agreement, then looked relieved as people shifted, allowing Rhyanon to enter the inner circle. Obviously someone had the presence of mind to fetch her as soon as the discovery was made. The remainder of their joint forces, no doubt as curious as everyone else, was hot on the woman's heels. Ely saw Rhyanon's face pale.

 

"That's a dreamspike," she stated pointing at something within the box. The woman took a breath clearly designed to calm herself before continuing, "That is extremely dangerous to the 'kin. This must all go back to the Citadel, to the Council. You, you and you," she pointed at a Wolfkin, a Bander and an Asha'man in quick succession, " take the box into the Lodge and stand guard on it until we leave. You'll find the Ranger Leader inside, explain to him what's in there. Everyone else, back to work. Let's get this finished."

 

The crowd began to disperse, back to their tasks, as Ely watched the guards move across the clearing and enter the main building with their treasure. She was just wondering what exactly a dreamspike could do that scared Rhyanon so much when a certain familiar sound reached her ears. Her head whipped around looking for the source as her hands reached instinctively for her daggers. Somebody, somewhere, was fighting.

 

 

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Ely took the drink from his outstretched hand. Her hand grasping the cup and taking it without making the slightest contact. There was both disappointment and relief in that. He knew such a touch would feel like lightning in his veins, and while exhilarating, it was potentially dangerous. He had seen others amongst the band have casual encounters. Rarely did both parties escape the exchange unscathed.  

 

 After the avoided eye contact and incidental touch her words caught him by surprise. The sound of her voice quickened his pulse. It wasn’t a soft voice, but for all that, he found it even more alluring. He watched her closely, searching for a hint of sarcasm, but there was none.

He did, however, see her wince as she took a drink. He frowned. It was getting late into the day to still be suffering from a hangover. She would have had to have had a lot to drink.  From the way others were acting too it seemed like the night before had been a night to remember. For once he was glad to have avoided partaking.

 

The sudden commotion had momentarily drawn her attention. She had asked him if he thought it was something important that had been found. He tried to desperately to think of something intelligent or clever to say but came up empty. She glanced over at him.  Reevaluating him, he was sure.

 

“Best go see if we’re needed.”

 

At first, he thought the words were a dismissal and he stood there standing as he watched her start to walk away. Then he realized she had said “we”. He broke into a jog to catch up with her.  She accepted his presence without comment. He followed in her wake as she moved through the crowd. There seemed to be a large degree of interest in the contents discovered in a box. Arinth couldn’t have told the difference between anything found and the contents of a dusty attic. Arinth rubbed his beard thoughtfully. They certainly sounded like important things. It was an unexpected bonus to the whole excursion.

 

As the crowd began to disperse Arinth saw Ely’s head snap around and her arms reach for her daggers. Huge, hulking forms appeared suddenly in their midst. Arinth was momentarily stunned by their appearance. They were like a mishmash of human and animals. He cursed himself for leaving his sword at the lodging. It would have gotten in the way of the work. Know he felt naked.

 

He grabbed the closest thing he could find. Just as he rose to his feet a lumbering nightmare with a ram’s head, came crashing towards him with its sword raised high. It was a trolloc. Arinth crouched low and brought the handle of the shovel up and thrust it forward. If it was part man than there was the chance it had the same weaknesses of a man. The wooden handle slammed into the trolloc between the leg and with a groan it dropped to its knees, stunned. Arinth spun the shovel around quickly, before the trolloc could recover, and stabbed the blade of the shovel into the beast’s neck. He yanked it free savagely and the trolloc collapsed with blood pouring from its throat.

 

From the corner of his eye he caught sight of another trolloc barreling towards him. He spun away just as the huge, ugly, axe cleaved through the air where he had been. He stuck out the handle of the shovel between its legs and pulled, dragging a leg out from under the beast. Arinth looked quickly around. Where was Ely? As good as she might be with those daggers, they would be no match against the superior reach of a trolloc.

 

He brought the shovel down to stab the trolloc. The snarling eagle faced trolloc swung his axe around to deflect the shovel. The axe cut through the handle effortlessly. Arinth, stumbled, off balance from the unexpected change in weight. The trolloc rose up and grabbed him. He pulled him down and rolled over so that he was above Arinth.

 

With a screech the trolloc raised his head back. Ainrth’s hand reached for the splintered shaft of the shovel with one hand while he raised the other to up to shield himself from the trolloc. It lunged down, its beak going towards his face. He twisted away, hoping not to lose an eye.

 

He stabbed from the side and felt the shaft plunge into the side of the trolloc’s head.

He crawled out from under the dead body of the trolloc and called out for Ely. There was chaos all around him. How could they handle such a foe? He picked up the fallen ax.

Sometimes all a person could do was choose to stand.   

 

An angry howl split the air and then others answered it.  

 

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Rhya was very pleased. What had begun as a disparate group of Wolfkin and Banders getting under each other's feet had, under her direction and with no few caustic remarks about their efforts, become an effective work crew. Bickering and nit picking had slowly evolved into advice shared, warnings given and a lending hand when required. She felt quite proud of the team, watching as they lifted the last of the planks into place on the neatly sloping roof, and started to hammer the nails home. It was good to see her first impression being borne out. These men and women could become quite the impactful fighting force given some joint training and missions. They'd done it before in the Two Rivers in a rather impromptu fashion and, although Owen said mistakes had been made by the Command on that occasion, the result had yet been a victory.

 

Rhya smiled warmly at those who weren't directly involved in the roofing, walking amongst them, slapping a shoulder here and there, shaking the odd hand with genuine gratitude. "Good work, everyone. This space for laying in extra supplies will be extremely valuable for the 'kin come winter. Unlike the Citadel, we don't have towns within easy travelling distance for trade. Much as we love our solitude, it has its drawbacks. Winifred is going to be a very happy Head Tracker."

 

Shadow's snarled warning came mere seconds before the attack.

 

Twisted Ones, cub. Trouble comes. Be ready. 

 

Rhya had her sword drawn before the final translation had even settled into her mind. "We are attacked! To arms!"

 

Her words rang harshly throughout the peace of the clearing, echoing back from the surrounding treeline. If her companions had been any other than militia, trained to respond immediately, all of them would have been slaughtered. Some few still stood looking blankly at her, as though she were mad, so she repeated the order, the note of command indisputable. In moments it was reinforced by the unmistakable clatter of armoured opponents on the move.

 

Rhya already knew that many of the Banders were not armed, weapons having been left inside the Lodge, but most were grabbing hammers, planks, axes or whatever else came to hand as the trollocs descended. It wouldn't be sufficient. She caught Rahien's eye, another Ranger trainee and the closest thing to a brother she'd ever had, "Get the weapons cache opened. Take those two with you." She indicated two Banders. "Arm as many as you can!"

 

And then an axe was swinging towards her head and she was too busy to think further on it, her blows and parries interspersed with terse orders as she tried to create some sense of cohesion and co-ordination in their defense. For defend was all they could do. These...beings... were huge, a good 8 foot tall or more. Even at 5ft8", she felt diminutive by comparison. The faces looming ahead of her were all animalistic; rams, bears, eagles. Predators. Despite growing up in the Borderlands, Rhya's life had generally been sheltered and she'd never seen actual shadowspawn. She'd heard plenty about them though and read more. As she fought, her mind catalogued details that might prove useful down the road such as all of her opponents bearing a particular insignia; a dagger-pierced hand. She also registered inconsequential things that would stay in her own memory rather longer; the metallic scent of blood mingled with the equally strong scents of fear and determination issuing from her friends and allies; the sheer roar of noise rising from the engaged forces was battering at her and she finally had to throw up her mental shields.

 

Help comes. Shadow's sending filled Rhya with relief, and satisfaction, as she caught the sense of wolves and Rangers heading through the forest at speed. Trollocs really did not like wolves. Knowing aid was on its way, she was able to focus on simply surviving, and her world narrowed to her immediate surroundings. Two trollocs attempted an encircling move, one holding a spear, the other an axe, forcing her to fight in two directions. She was more than familiar with the technique having had the moves and countermoves of that attack and defense drummed into her by Owen and her fellow Rangers. Unlike the Rangers, trollocs didn't work too well together. The trolloc with the heavier weapon was closer and Rhya took three quick steps towards it, something it clearly hadn't expected. It hesitated, wavering, and she swung at it's left side, almost severing its arm. The creature barely managed to get it's axe up in time to block, by which time she was beside it, pivoting with her whole body and dropping into a crouch as she aimed a hacking  slash at the unprotected back of its knees. The thing screamed as Rhya's blade severed its hamstrings, and dropped immediately, first to its knees and then toppling on to its face. It was done. She didn't wait for it to complete its fall, turning instead to deal with her other opponent.

 

She spun on one foot, facing the other attacker, and despite the reach of its spear, it was more cautious having seen her speedy dispatch of its fellow. It crouched defensively, waiting for her to come forward. Her skin crawled in anticipation and she shifted her weight preparing to swing. Then her enemy sprouted first one arrow and then another from its eyes. Rhya smirked as it collapsed with a thud and her eyes met Blaeric's. 

 

"I don't care what Owen says, Blaeric" she tossed the words in the other Ranger's direction with a broad wink, even as she ran to help a nearby Bander, "your co-ordination is just fine! And your sense of timing is impeccable..." She just caught his expressive curse and snort of laughter as the fighting carried them in opposite directions.

 

Taking an assessing glance of the area, Rhya was thankful to see, after the initial onslaught, that the trolloc numbers weren't so high as they had first appeared. Rahien and his helpers had done a good job getting weapons into people's hands quickly and, now that the Rangers and wolves had arrived, the tide was visibly turning. There would be injuries, some fairly serious that would keep the Sages busy later, that much was clear. But somehow, through some miracle of the Creator, nobody had yet died.

 

She hefted her sword, picking her next target, and felt Shadow's purposeful presence to her left followed two seconds later by Owen on her right. 

 

We hunt. Shadow's howl was answered many times over and as the 'kin rejoined the battle, so too did the wolves.

 

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Ely froze, her mind refusing to compute the looming, nightmare creatures that materialised before her. Through the shock, her body responded automatically, pivoting neatly to one side to avoid a stabbing spear. The momentum of its thrust brought an eagle-headed monster closer and Ely took full advantage, plunging one dagger into its armpit even as the other buried itself in the feather covered throat. Both blades slid easily out of their temporary homes and she watched the form crumple.

 

A quick glance showed the whole area was in an uproar; a confusion of shouts, screams, clashing weapons, and intermittent flashes of Power. Ely vaguely recalled hearing at the Citadel that the men's channeling had limitations. Given all the work they'd done this day, she had to assume they were holding themselves in abeyance until they were sure they could make a significant impact. If they became over tired, their Power would be useless. It was strategically sound thinking and occasional assistance was better than nothing. A couple of Wolfbrothers were providing the channelers with additional cover.

 

For a heartbeat, Ely was torn. She wasn't happy about leaving Arinth with nobody to watch his back. That was the reason she gave herself for her reluctance anyway. But he was an adult, a trained soldier, capable of taking care of himself and surrounded with not only Band folk but also several quite lethal asha'man. Tris wasn't any of those things. Ely wasn't sure precisely why she'd assumed any responsibility for that reprobate, but she had. Maybe Tris wasn't alone. Maybe the child was with some of the 'kin. It didn't matter. Ely couldn't trust in strangers. She had to be certain no harm came to the youngster because she was the one who'd sent Tris away from the protection of the Band and, although it had been a perfectly sensible action at the time, it didn't change the result now. Tris was one of their own and it was Ely's job to ensure she got home safely.

 

Besides, despite all the damage she could do with her daggers, she wouldn't be able to sustain the speed and style of fighting they required against these kinds of opponents. Nor was taking their weapons an option. She didn't have the strength to wield such weight. No, she needed her own sword and it was in the Lodge.

 

Choice made and logic satisfied, Ely set her jaw and was off, weaving her way with grim determination across the intervening ground. It was no easy feat to navigate the heaving press of bodies but there was no time to skirt the fighting. She simply made a beeline for the steps. She was working on the premise that it was harder to hit a moving target, falling into a rhythm of ducking, deflecting and dodging blows as her nostrils clogged up with the smells of sweat, blood and something rancid that clung to these foreign beasts. It seemed as though hours passed while she forged herself a path, although in reality it was mere minutes before she broke free and ran up the long steps into the Lodge.

 

"Tris?" her voice hung harshly in the empty silence of the main room. No response. Ely moved quickly to the weapon stand, retrieving her own sword and purloining a spare as she called again. "Tris! Where in the Light are you?! Answer me!" Still nothing. The entire place had been vacated. She was wasting her time hanging about there. Hopeful that the Sages had simply taken the child with them, Ely ran back out to the top of the steps. Where was Arinth? Despite the extra height the steps provided, she couldn't see him. Fierce eyes scanned the scene, flicking from one section of the fighting to another. Searching.

 

She spotted the Sergeant embroiled in a stand-off with a bear faced behemoth. A second later he took an axe to the temple that threw him several yards and slammed him against the Lodge wall. He landed in an unmoving heap, a single trickle of blood seeping out of his ear. Lifeless.

 

She couldn't get to him, there were too many enemies between them and, even if she could, it would have been futile. It was too late for the man. Anger burned through Ely's blood at the sight, filling her with a violent need for retribution. She launched herself off the steps and back into the thick of the action... accompanied by the not-so-distant sound of wolves howling.

 

Time ceased to mean anything. She existed solely from one encounter to the next. She had come to the aid of a scout who was being sorely pressed, slicing through his protagonist's spine, and then fought briefly back to back with an unfamiliar infantryman until they dispatched their respective foes. Looking for her next target, she found herself accosted by a meaty fist swinging inexorably towards her and she twisted away. Not fast enough. The thought registered faintly as pain blossomed across her shoulders, doubling her over and making her stagger a few steps. 

 

She refocused as best she could, balancing her weight, and launching a flurry of hacking feints and rapid strikes at the abomination that had dared touch her. It wasn't pretty. Sword play wasn't ever pretty in the middle of battle. It was vicious, and messy, and savage. Satisfying, Ely called it. These things were hurting her people.

 

There was no denying that she was tiring though. Heaping emotional upheaval, a forced run and physical labour on top of her already tender state from the previous night hadn't left her in a battle ready condition. Ely could feel the muscles in her arms protesting and the trauma to her shoulders had bruised the bone. She swallowed the pain as best she could, circling the owner of the damage inducing fist. It lunged at her again, and in its haste slipped on the blood slick grass, landing on its face. Never one to miss an opportunity, Ely slammed her sword down across the back of its neck, decapitating it.

 

She straightened slowly, disengaging the blade from bone and sinew, noting the notches that would need to be worked out of it later, and wiped the metal clean on the creature's apparel. The adrenaline was draining out of her system at an alarming rate and she could feel every cut, every bruise.  She had to move. Light, the blasted man better not be hurt. He disturbed her peace as nobody else ever had and the Creator help her but she wanted him in one piece until she figured out why!

 

Coming back to awareness of her surroundings, Ely saw that there were only a  few pockets of fighting left. Reinforcements had arrived at last and, though hard fought, the day was all but won.  Oddly she hadn't progressed far from the Lodge steps, all the back and forth of combat had disoriented her. She spun sharply on her heel, intent on locating Arinth, only to hear his voice calling her name. Pleasure washed over her at the sound, raising the hairs on the back of her neck.

 

She swiped the back of one hand across her eyes to clear the miasma of dust and blood, trying to identify where the call had come from. Her frame was taut with the tension of waiting for him to come into her line of sight. Maybe it had been a figment of her imagination after all conjured up by want rather than reality. She could hear her heartbeat thrumming ever more loudly through her over sensitive skull.

 

"Ely!" This time the shout came from her left. A higher pitched voice.

 

"Tris?" Ely turned slightly to see Tris wriggling out from behind a loose plank, revealing a small crawl space underneath the far end of the Lodge. Clever kid. A weight that she hadn't even been aware of lifted at the knowledge that Tris too was alive and safe but no sooner had she registered that than Tris screamed her name a second time.

 

Ely's brows knit together and she took a quick step in Tris' direction. It was a step which, she would acknowledge later, probably saved her life. A sharp, agonizing pain scored its way across her lower back and hip as an unseen blade bit deeply into flesh leaving nothing but fire in its wake. She tried to twist round, to bring her own sword up to block any further attack, but her body refused to co-operate. She felt her knees hit the mercifully soft ground before the fog descended and she knew nothing more.

 

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 “Blood and bloody ashes.” Arinth snarled as he pulled the bloody ax he held free of the trolloc corpse under it. He had killed the trolloc but had not been fast enough to save the man that had stood against the monster. Just a few days before the young man had been alive and laughing in his training class.

Arinth’s breathing came in ragged, painful gasps. He had taken wounds. A blade had dug into the front of his leg, causing him a stumbling limp. Another trolloc had rammed into his side. The impact had driven the air from his lungs, and he had a growing suspicion that some of his ribs might be broken.

Arinth scanned the grounds again. He still had not been able to find Ely. He kicked himself. She had been right next to him. He should have stayed with her and looked out for her. He saw Arkin in the distance working in unison with other soldiers to dispatch a fearsome looking trolloc. The sergeant that had led the excursion was down. The anger in Arinth’s blood reached a boiling point.

 

Where was Ely? He spun around and called her name again. He did not hear her response as he has hoped but he did hear another soldier call her name. He located the voice and then nearby he saw Ely. The momentary sense of relief at seeing her quickly vanished. A trolloc nearby skewered a wolfkin and turned his sights to Ely.

 

Arinth urged himself forward. His body failing to match the demand of his will. He stumbled forward, his leg burning, his lungs struggling to pull in the oxygen that he needed. He tried to call out to Ely to warn her, but the sound came out as a ragged gasp. The trolloc’s blade slashed across her lower back. She twisted and fell to her knees. The trolloc raised his blade.

 

Arinth was close now but every fraction of a second felt like an eternity. He raised the ax in his hands as he saw the trolloc’s blade pull back, glistening in the sunlight with blood and some other type of oily substance. Arinth roared as he started his swing. The trolloc caught sight of him as began to bring down his blade towards Ely. The nightmare creature’s eyes flashed as he realized he could not strike down Ely and have time to deflect Arinth’s blade.

 

The trolloc’s weapon changed course. Ely collapsed to the ground as the blades clashed above her. The impact shook Arinth to his bones. The heavy fist of the trolloc smashed into his face and lights blossomed and danced behind Arinth’s eyes. He felt his legs buckle but he willed himself to say upright. He thrust out with the butt of the ax and caught the creature in the chest. A moment later he felt the ax pulled from his hands. His vision still swam as the world tilted around him.

 

He struck out with his fist but there was little power behind the strike. I might as well be punching with pillows, he thought to himself. His arm was grabbed, and he was yanked forward and down. He felt a sharp snap in his arm.

 

The explosion in his mind cleared his vision. His gaze fell to Ely. He couldn’t fail her too. His other hand reached for the knife at his belt. He stabbed out it, burying it somewhere in the trolloc. He was rewards with a cry of surprise and anger. He withdrew the knife far enough to strike home with it again and again. The Trolloc fell to his knees. Arinth brought his knee up into the beast’s face. It landed with a satisfying crunch despite the protest of his wounded leg. The trolloc rolled over onto its back. Before it could try to rise Arinth threw his weight onto its chest. He worked quickly with the knife and drew the blade deep across the throat of the creature.

 

Arinth collapsed to the ground. His energy was draining through is wounds despite his best efforts to hold onto it. Not yet, he thought desperately as he felt the darkness close around him. He pushed himself up to one knee and then with a strangled curse up to his feet. Ely’s eyes were closed but she still breathed. There was blood from her wound but not enough to be deadly. He had seen something else on that blade though and fear gripped his heart. He had heard that sometimes trollocs poisoned their blades.

 

“Medic.” He cried. The sounds of battle were fading around him and were not being replaced by those of the wounded. He bent to scoop up Ely in his arms before he realized that his right hung useless at his side. “Forgive me.” He whispered as he rolled her over on her back, squatted down, slide his good under her and lifted her up onto his shoulder.

 

He stumbled towards the lodge as he called again for a medic. A wolkin appeared, slender and grey. She rested a bloody hand on his shoulder and pointed towards the lodge. With a short nod he pushed on towards the lodge.

 

“Where is she hurt?” The woman asked.

 

“Her back.” Arinth replied in pained gasps. The woman’s eyes found the wound and looked it over, evaluating it. “There was something on the beast’s blade. Can you help?”

 

The woman’s face turned grim. “We can help. We have been treating the others like her.”

 

Arinth allowed himself a moment of relief. As they reached the lodge others came and took her gently from his arm. He forced himself to let go. He slumped against the lodge. His mind flashed over the recent scenes and realized that he was the commanding officer. He saw a group of soldiers nearby and called them over. They had a shocked look in their eyes that often came with one’s first battle.

 

He pointed to the first one. “Gather a group together and get the wounded to the lodge. Focus on those with the most severe injuries first. Go, now.”

 

He looked at the next one. “Gather another group together and make sure each of these fallen trollocs is killed. Be careful, a wounded trolloc is still a very dangerous enemy. Go, now.”

 

He looked at the third soldier. The look of shock was beginning to fade from his eyes as he prepared himself for his orders. “Check on those assigned to protect the newly found objects. If they are wounded or unable to guard the objects, I need four soldiers guarding them. Go.”

 

The fourth soldier, a young woman, stepped forward. “Find the rest of my soldiers. I want them to report to me immediately. Go.”

 

Arinth stood as he watched the soldiers hurry to their tasks. The wolkin were already securing the perimeter. He would leave that task to them.

 

A healer from the wolkin came up to him. He believed he had heard them called sages. “You are wounded.” The sage said. “Let us tend to your wounds.”

 

Arinth shook his head. “There are many wounded. “See to the others first.” The sage frowned disapprovingly but nodded.

 

Arinth held himself upright as the soldiers of the band began gathering around. They needed strength right now. As he stood, he could think of little else besides Ely. “Light, let her be ok.” He whispered.

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