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Rotting From the Inside Out (Part 1)


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Hope is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops at all —



A soft groan issued from somewhere under the pristine sheets as Elynde attempted to right herself. Choice words, interspersed with more groans as well as a considerable amount of squirming, followed. Her whole body felt as if it had been lying in the same position for days which, in reality, it had because they had to let her back heal. Any pressure at all on the wound risked re-opening it. Still, whomever had thought this brick she'd been stuck on was deserving of the name bed, needed their head examined.


In truth, she was still in a considerable amount of pain but, for the first time, her head was entirely clear and her boredom outstripped her lack of energy. She was determined to get up. The only problem with fulfilling that wish, was that her limbs were aching and stiff, and sitting up was causing a multitude of smaller aches to make themselves known. With a little perseverance, or sheer bloody mindedness as her mother would have said, Ely eventually managed to roll onto her side and push herself up enough to swing her legs over the edge of the bed. Upright at last, she placed her bare feet on the blessedly cold, stone-flagged floor and breathed slowly, recovering from the exertion. She could feel the skin along the wound pulling but, thankfully, it seemed to have knit enough that it wasn't going to pull apart. 


She wasn't quite sure how many days had passed since their return to the Citadel. She'd spent most of it in a haze, probably due to those herbal concoctions the Sage had provided that the medics kept dosing her with. Her memories of being at the Tracker Lodge were practically non existent after being hit. A mild fever brought on by whatever had been on the blade that Light forsaken creature had cut her with, so the medic said. "Trollocs," she shuddered at the idea, closing her eyes briefly against the memory of remembered pain. She'd felt the skin slicing, the metal biting into muscle and tissue. The burning had been agony. If it hadn't been for the Sages.... well, no point following that line of thought. It hadn't been her time and that was that. It troubled her more than she liked though; the idea of dying alone, far from home and her beloved ocean, with nobody to miss her passing.


She shook herself, and muttered under her breath, "You signed up for it, girl. Wanted to make your mark on the world, didn't you? Do something important. There's always a price, a trade off. You knew that going in. You made that choice. Too late for what ifs now."


Ely stood with care, allowing her legs to take her full weight bit by bit until she was sure she could stand, and looked about for clothing. She could feel the soft waft of air across her back where the shift she was clad in had been cut from hem to neck. The medic had explained it was important to allow air to get to the wound for the first few days to aid in faster healing. Once it had closed, they'd bound her midriff tightly to prevent infection. They seemed to know what they were doing, these healers, but she was blasted well not going to be seen walking around like this. She located her own belongings on a chair behind the door and set about making herself respectable. The process of dressing without causing herself too much pain took most of her concentration which meant it was a few minutes before the low voices outside the room impinged on her awareness. The speakers couldn't see her, tucked behind the door as she was.


"...I told you, that's another 5 come in...to be reported he said....too many now...," the first voice sounded Cairhienin and Ely leaned enough to see round the door before ducking back. Two men, assistants most likely, had their heads together in a way that, if they'd only realised it, screamed secrecy to anyone watching. 


"6 dead last week, another 8 this week. Medics reckon it's a bad batch. Fermenting gone wrong." A second man chimed in trying to sound knowledgeable. The first replied with something Ely couldn't quite make out and their voices began to fade away as footsteps moved into another room. Something about that conversation wasn't right and she tried to pinpoint what as she tugged her shirt over her head. It was forgotten moments later, however, as tightening her belt caused a wince just as the medic, an older man whom she'd seen yesterday, appeared in the doorway. He insisted brusquely on checking her wound and rebinding it with a fresh dressing before agreeing she was well enough to go back to her own quarters.


"But you come back if that wound opens up and nothing too strenuous for the time being. You're excused duty until I say otherwise," he gave her a hard stare to drive home that he was serious so Ely nodded hasty compliance.


"How many days have I been here?" Ely interjected when he paused, only to have him look her over carefully.


"Days is it? Nay, lass. You've been in here almost 3 weeks." 


Ely blinked.


"Did your visitors not tell you?"


Another blink. "Visitors? More than one? Who else would have cared enough to check? The Sergeant? No...no...he died, I saw him." She frowned, and her confused thoughts must have shown on her face, as the medic spoke again.


"A young girl, two or three times. And a man, infantry I'd say. Been here regular like. Looked fairly beaten up himself. Late on in the day." He nodded absently to himself, "You might have been asleep at that. Only been with us properly these past few days. Nasty fever so it was. Now, you can do some light training if you feel up to it, but don't be a cork brained idiot and overdo it, you'll just end up back in here. You can get a fresh dressing each morning."


With that he bustled off to tend his next patient, leaving Ely with one name and a very particular pair of eyes burning into her brain. She remembered Tris visiting. The earlier visits were rather blurry but yesterday's... that wasn't one she was likely to forget. The kid had described Arinth's actions with relish and no small amount of glee, making him sound like some kind of avenging saviour. It wasn't far off the mark in Ely's estimation. Hearing of the severity of the injuries he'd taken and fought through, had caused a very strange sensation in her stomach and when Tris spoke of him carrying her into the Lodge, the flash of heat had taken her voice for several minutes. She'd been half scared to ask how he was but Tris volunteered the information that the Sage, Aislyn, had finally put her foot down and insisted Arinth be treated in case his broken ribs had punctured a lung. 


Ely knew she couldn't afford to read anything into it. The man, however impressive, was only doing what any member of the infantry would do for another. What any Bander would do for another. That's all it was. Wasn't it? But if that's all then why come to visit, and so often...and why not when she was awake? His behaviour spoke of someone who didn't want their actions known. "Or who wasn't sure of their welcome..." her inner voice pointed out insidiously. Her common sense reasserted itself. "Or maybe he was just working late duty and he visited all of the injured soldiers!"   


Exasperated by the immediate feeling of disappointment that thought engendered, Ely shoved her thick fall of hair out of her face, and began making her way out of the building that was reserved for the most serious cases. She walked haltingly past the other general medical and triage tents, and on into the city proper. The streets got busier as she went and she kept to the very edges of the thoroughfares, avoiding any bumps or collisions as best she could on her slow progress. She had a destination in mind, having made Nowal's inn a regular haunt since first finding it. The food was good, the inn clean and the ale met Ely's high standards. Food was the first priority. She was as weak as a day old kitten. Then...then she had some people to thank and some questions to ask.

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 Arinth frowned again as his eyes scanned another report. There was a troubling trend developing. Men and women absent from their training sessions at a higher rate than normal, men and women leaving the band without so much as a word, and men and women taking ill suddenly when they were in peak physical condition.


He set the papers down awkwardly with his left hand. His right arm, still in a sling, was practically useless for the time being. The stretching motion caused a ripple of pain through his side.  The medics had believed he had two cracked ribs. They had wrapped him up tight but there was little else that could be done. They would heal, in time.


He tried to focus on the troubling reports in front of him, but his thoughts kept turning to Ely. The healers had said that she would be ok. They had assured him that she was doing better. They practically kicked him out of her room, telling him that they couldn’t get anything done with him lumbering over her. Their arguments were logical but somewhere in the back of his mind he felt that his proximity had to help in some way. He knew there was no sound medical reasoning for it, but he held on to the belief none the less.


He shook away those thoughts. The medics and healers would do their jobs. He had his own responsibilities to tend to. What was going on with the soldiers? He would be the first to admit that as a private he had not been the most diligent in his attendance of early morning training and it was not altogether completely uncommon for soldiers to take their leave from the company. Those that joined the Band did so because they believed in its cause though. With the last battle looming ever closer it was hard to believe that so many would lose that belief or decide they had more important things to pursue.


She had stood, casually pressed against his side, in that lodge. Her quick wit saving him from single-handedly destroying the alliance with the Black Tower with his big, dumb mouth. He still felt her breath against his ear, the fierceness in her whisper. He had seen a tree struck by lightning once. The explosion as that charge coursed through that tree was the closest comparison he could find to what her voice had done to him.


He smoothed the report out, awkwardly circling the names of the departed soldiers that struck him as the most unusual. They had been men and women committed to their position. His gut told him that this was something that needed to be pursued.


Her touch. It had been casual and gentle, yet confident and firm. Her dark hair, how he wanted to stroke it. His hands were too rough and calloused for that though. He stood up with a growl. He felt on edge. The feeling that had woken in him, combined with the fear and anxiety over her injury and the strange disappearances around camp were almost overwhelming.


Her dark brown eyes. Many thought that blue eyes were the most beautiful and some even said green but he had never seen more beautiful eyes than when he had beheld hers.


He was out of his tent before he realized it and halfway to the infirmary before he realized where he was headed. He had been away long enough. At least the swelling had gone down in his face. The trolloc’s fist had felt like a hammer blow. His oft broken nose could attest to the fact that he could take a punch, but he had never encountered any fist like that.


Arinth felt his pulse quicken as he caught sight of someone up ahead. It looked like Ely. He blinked. Maybe the blow had done more damage than anyone had realized if he was having hallucinations now. The woman continued coming towards him. It was Ely. She walked with a confident purpose but a slight hitch that her wound had caused.


“Ely.” He called out and jogged forward, ignoring the painful twinge in his leg. He felt foolish but he couldn’t stop himself. “You are ok?” He asked, his eyes moving up and down her body. He didn't mean to gawk, but it was a sight difficult not to indulge in. His gaze found its way back up to her eyes which were locked on him. Whatever she was thinking was hidden in the dark pools of her beautiful eyes.


He reached out his left hand, but to do what? Touch her hair? Her face? He remembered how she had avoided his touch when he had handed her the water at the lodging. He squeezed her shoulder gently. “You look good. I was worried. They said the blade that wounded you was poisoned.”

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Was it the eyes? Ely turned a corner and checked her bearings. Still two streets away from The Red Rascal. It would be good to speak with Nowal. 


She definitely had trouble forgetting the eyes. No. That suggested she had tried to forget. She couldn't honestly claim that. It was a memory she clung to. A moment out of time. It reminded her of her 8th name day. Uncle Jorey had been in harbour on one of those rare shore visits and Father had taken her out on his old ship. He missed his days on the water and had needed little excuse to introduce his daughter to the experience. They'd been caught in a storm on the return journey. Nothing serious, merely a sudden squall common in the coastal waters around Ebou Dar.  She'd been small back then of course, and the elements wild. She well recalled the thrill of the ship being thrown about; of being right on the edge of losing control and feeling so...free. Yet, somehow, still being anchored solidly to the waves beneath them by some irresistible force. Looking into his eyes, eyes that reminded her of those equally stormy skies, had been every bit as exhilarating and made her feel every bit as free. It was terrifying. 


"Ely." She squeezed her eyes tight shut for a brief second. And there it was. The anchor. Tethering her to the spot again. Great. Now I'm hearing things too. The same as she had outside the Lodge. Although maybe that had been real after all? Her mind was more than a little spotty on some details.


"You are ok?" The voice wasn't stopping this time. A tremor ran through her and she opened wary eyes to find him standing there. In front of her. Within reaching distance. His keen stare ran over her, checking she was in one piece. Everywhere it touched, her body responded as though to the softest caress. Ely inhaled deeply. She had to stop this. With a supreme effort of will she kept her face impassive but it was difficult in the presence of his genuine concern. Nobody could doubt that much, seeing him, it was written all over his face and his posture. 


Ely couldn't take her own eyes off him never mind find a coherent reply. So many words jumbled on the tip of her tongue, so many emotions bubbling just under the surface, such an urge to reach out and... Her spine straightened. Control. She'd been in very tight control of herself, her emotions, her whole life these past years. She unconsciously understood the why of it. When your entire life is suddenly in chaos, any slight control is something to cling to; reassuring, comforting, familiar. She knew herself well enough to know her true nature was nothing like controlled. And it was nearer the surface than she wanted it to be. Because the loss of that control would bring with it all the things she didn't want to face. Being herself meant getting hurt. She couldn't go through that again. It was all right there, a fine balancing act, ready to topple if she misstepped. 


Ely watched his hand rise, stretching towards her, hovering uncertainly, until he eventually just squeezed her shoulder. It was gentle but she winced a little even so, the bruises from one heavy blow still tender, and he removed his hand quickly. She quashed the urge to stop him.


“You look good. I was worried. They said the blade that wounded you was poisoned.”


She opened her mouth to answer but whatever she'd intended to say, all that came out was, "Arinth." The word issued low, her voice husky from disuse. She relished speaking his name, thought she noted a flare of something at the back of his eyes, and attempted to speak coherently again but ended up offering a simple, "Thank you." She didn't have to explain what for. He knew he'd saved her life after all. 


He nodded, brushing it off as if it was of no importance but Ely's attention had moved to his own appearance, caught by the awkwardness of his stance. She took in his arm, noted the swelling still barely noticeable on his face, and stared at various scars and bruises. If someone had punched her in the gut it might have caused less pain. A soft sound of distress escaped her and she swallowed, visibly shaken. Hearing the story from Tris hadn't really prepared her for seeing him injured. This time it was her hand reaching to touch, to check, but not wishing to cause any further harm. It hovered there for a few seconds and finally, dropped helplessly, concern clouding her features.


"Don't pretend it didn't matter. Tris told me what you did," her gaze tracked the little swelling that remained across Arinth's cheek, up to his temple and then lowered, lingering on his arm. "It was your life risked for mine. My wound may be healing, and yes," she answered his original statement quietly, "there was poison in it, but thankfully not as much as it might have been due to the angle of the blade, but I'm still as weak as can be. I was lucky. And I'm off duty for the time being." 


Ely found Arinth's eyes with her own again and a rare, genuine smile slowly tilted across her mouth, softening her features, and crinkling the corners of her eyes. It just made her happy that he was standing there, to know he'd been worried. Even if it was only professional concern. She'd almost forgotten what happy felt like. She was allowed that much wasn't she? Just for a minute. 


"I'd best not keep you," she murmured, side stepping and taking a step in the direction of the inn. But invisible strings halted her before she could go further. She glanced over her shoulder. The offer spilled from her lips out of nowhere, "If you have the time... would you let me stand you a meal or a drink at least? I have to eat and the company would be...welcome." 


Arinth's acceptance was immediate, the speed of it making her smile again despite her best efforts not to. She couldn't seem to keep her emotions in check around him at all! Smiling at him like a girl at her first Bel Tine! They fell into step, walking steadily but not rushing along the remaining streets, and found themselves in front of a white washed building with an ornately painted sign declaring The Red Rascal a few minutes later. It was quiet at this time of day, as Ely had known it would be, with only a scattering of patrons at the bar. With no discussion, they both made for a table in the back corner of the room. Ely liked having her back to a wall. Even more so with a wound to protect.


She sat gingerly, trying not to let the back of the chair press too closely across her back, and on glancing surreptitiously at Arinth, found him doing the same thing. She couldn't help it, laughter choked out of her and she slapped a hand across her mouth, eyes dancing. "Sorry!" she gasped. "But..." Fingers waggled back and forth indicating both of them. It was no use. The picture they must have made sitting down like a couple of old crones was too much for Ely. Laughter came whether she willed it or no, peal after infectious peal, releasing some of the stress that had pent up in the last few days. And if there was a slight edge of hysteria to it, that was hardly to be wondered at.


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Arinth flinched at her reaction to his touch. Either it was unwanted, or it had caused pain, neither of which he desired. He felt the burning desire to leave before he embarrassed himself any further. What was he doing? He barely knew the woman. How could he feel so strongly? His head had always kept him out of these situations before.




Her voice had an unmatched quality to it. It had a way of resonating deep inside of him.


“Thank you.”


He lowered his gaze as he tried to shrug off her thank you. It hadn’t seemed like anything particularly heroic he had done. She had still been wounded. He had barely come out on top of the fight himself.


"Don't pretend it didn't matter. Tris told me what you did,"


Her voice felt like a caress. How was that even possible? He felt light-headed. She kept talking but with his heart pounding in his ears he could barely hear.


“but I'm still as weak as can be. I was lucky. And I'm off duty for the time being." 


Off duty! He certainly hoped so. She should be taking it easy while she recovered. And if she wasn’t on duty didn’t that mean that there was the chance that he could spend time with her? Possibly? He locked eyes with her and for a moment her demeanor melted, and a beautiful smile spread across her face. It felt like illuminators fireworks were exploding in his chest. Before he could recover, she had found an excuse to say good bye and stepped around him. His mouth was still hanging open from what he was about to stay. He closed it slowly and straightened. He was about to bend down and pick his heart off of the ground when he heard her speak again from behind him.


"If you have the time... would you let me stand you a meal or a drink at least? I have to eat and the company would be...welcome."    


He spun around to make sure he was the one that she was talking to. She did not need to make any gesture to thank him. He wasn’t about to argue the point though. She had invited him to join her. That was what was important. He quickly replied, hoping his comment was intelligent enough for het to understand.


They walked quietly towards the inn. He tried to think of something smart or interesting to say but was unable to think of anything that did not sound completely stupid. A silly notion came to mind of him holding her hand as they walked. Did people really do that? It seemed like it should be reasonable, but it was not something seen at the Citadel. It seemed like her hand would fit very well into his though.


He wondered if she was regretting her decision to invite him. He was normally very comfortable in the company of others. Here he was though, less engaging and entertaining than a cold puddle of mud. They found a table at the back of the room. Both struggled to take their seats. Arinth sat with a stifled groan and a muttered curse. He heard a giggle across the table and looked up to see Ely’s restraint crumble as she broke into laughter. Arinth grinned himself, his nervousness dissipating as he began to chuckle.


Once their laughter had died down the server appeared. She glanced back and forth between the two with an arched eyebrow. He ordered his usual and turned his attention back to Ely. He wasn’t one to avoid confrontation or to shy away from what he wanted to go after. There was the hang up of his rank though. He did not want her to feel compelled to entertain his advances because of his rank. He met her eyes. He couldn’t shake the feeling in his chest when he looked at her. He had to tell her and put it out there. Whatever happened would happen.


“Ely, He said. “I am not very good at small talk. I haven’t been able to get you off of my mind since I met you. I know that we just met but you are unlike anyone else that I have ever met. I would very much like the opportunity to spend more time with you and to get to know you.” He had wanted to say more but it probably would have been a bit overwhelming for him to start talking about the instant connection he had felt. He wasn’t good at this sort of thing. He had never really tried before. He hoped that he had been able to express his interest without sounding like a crazy person.

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"...I haven't been able to get you off of my mind since I met you..." 


Ely heard the rest with some distant part of her brain, but she wasn't giving it her full attention. She pressed the heel of her hand into her stomach trying to contain ...she didn't know what it was or how to describe it but it was an overwhelming, tumbling, flipping ball of nerves, fear, and something else. The same something else she'd felt while listening to Tris recount events at the Lodge. 


Reluctantly she looked up. She recognised, with no small relief, the stark truth in his words. There was no prevarication, no game playing, going on here. Tension hovered around Arinth's eyes while he waited, as patiently as any man could after a speech like that, for her response. Her own feelings were so overpowering she was sure they must be written across her face for the whole world to read. An open book. But he patently didn't see them. 


"I think you're my anchor," she blurted, the words spilling out of her mouth, tumbling over each other in their haste to be heard. Her pupils dilated in shock at the involuntary confession. Whatever plans she might have, her heart had other ideas entirely. Ely groaned in dismay, covering her eyes briefly with one palm. Smooth, really smooth. Now he's going to think you're insane!  Well. That had done it. She'd never been one for hiding before so no point starting to now. She was just going to have to explain... many things. She groaned again. But one thing would do to begin with. Her arm dropped, forearm landing on the scrubbed wooden tabletop. 


Arinth bridged the gap between them, reaching his hand towards her, concerned no doubt about her reaction and the noises she was making. In a moment of clarity, she realised that he did that often. It seemed as unplanned and instinctive as many of her own actions when he was nearby. Maybe she wasn't alone in feeling this way. Maybe... so many maybes.


He started to pull his arm back and Ely recognised in the movement the same hesitancy she'd felt earlier. He didn't want to impose a touch on her that might not be welcome. That clear consideration allowed her to find the courage to stop his retreat, curling her fingertips gently around his, hooking him in place. She heard the sharp intake of his breath. She simply stopped breathing altogether for a few seconds. Her gaze locked, fascinated, on that single connection between them. The pads of her fingers tingled. She could feel his pulse vibrating through the thin layer of skin. 


"Ely? Are you ok?" That voice! The Creator had a lot to answer for. It broke through the sensory overload, bringing her back to the moment, and she nodded once, a little unsteadily. She regarded him carefully, searching his face for clues and perhaps, in that moment, it was fate she sensed; a foreshadowing of the future even, but sure knowledge settled in her brain with the same kind of certainty people had that the sun would rise every morning. This was a turning point. A pivotal moment in her life, changing the direction of her path.


Something cracked. Deep inside. A little fissure in the dam she'd built and stayed safely behind, ever since that...but no, that was for later. And the words began to flow again.


"It's what my father told me. Many years ago. You know I'm from Ebou Dar of course?" she questioned with a half smile. It was a fairly easy thing to construe about her after all. At his assent she continued, "I was young still, when he died. The memories are few and often blurry, like I'm seeing them through gauze and can't quite catch all the details. But I have one that's very clear. He was explaining to me how he met my mother, no doubt embellishing the tale as he went. Sailors do so love to do that, you know, and he was no different." She paused, reaching her free right hand around the back of her head and pulling her hair away, back off the left side of her neck. "See here.." Her body turned towards the fireplace at her right, and she took her other hand back to tug the loose folds of her linen shirt off her shoulder. Her lips twisted in a slight grimace when her wound complained but she stayed still, allowing Arinth to see the intricately knotted rope drawn in a coil on her skin, just behind and below her ear. It wound down the curve of her neck and attached itself to the top of a detailed anchor hanging across her shoulder blade. Along the curve of the anchor, a few words were 'scribed: She Stood in the Storm.


Ely pulled the fabric back into place and let her hair fall back in a soft swish against her neck. "He told me she was his anchor. Every time he went out to sea, he knew he'd return safe because she anchored him to the land." Tears filled her eyes but she blinked, forcing them back. It wasn't time for that. Still it was a struggle to give voice to the words. "When she died, and I had to leave Ebou Dar... I got that. A memory of both of them.  The words; they came later. Part of another story. And..." she took another deep breath, then another, pushing the nerves down. She had to match the honesty he'd given her, "...I think you're mine...my anchor." Her hand moved in the air then, in an erratic, emotional accompaniment to her words. "You're in my head...all the time! You're in my..." That thought, she bit off. Burn me, it's too soon. Too much. Blast my tongue from my head!


Arinth said nothing and she wondered if she'd gone too far. The silence stretched.


Jump in with both feet then, Ely. Time to gamble for once. 


"I can't do casual with you. Do you understand? I can't, because it wouldn't be." She stared at him, as if trying to bore a hole in his head with her eyes, to see what he was thinking. "But...yes, if you're sure, we can spend some time together." She shot him a questioning look then, and her tone became hesitant, unsure but also hopeful. "You came to see me, didn't you? I thought you were surely visiting everyone, but... you only came to see me?" 



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Arinth was a mix of emotions, physical pain and hunger. The chair had proven more uncomfortable than he had anticipated. He found it an irritating distraction as he focused on Ely’s words. There was no denying the way he felt about this woman. He had felt an undefined connection with her the moment he had met her and each interaction since then had only confirmed and strengthened that feeling. He knew her more than there was any reasonable, logical explanation for him to.


He had taken the jump. Now that he had found her, he had to let her know. And so, he had spoken, he put himself out there. He had never dreamed or dared to hope, that she could feel anything remotely similar. Here she was though and what she was saying sounded just like it. She felt something close to what he himself felt. He couldn’t imagine that it could be stronger than his own feelings, but it felt and sounded strong. Unless of course he was making up the whole thing in his head, taking the words that she said, erasing them from his memory and filling in words of his own desire in their place. That seemed just as plausible.


Or could it even be a dream? Here she was, beautiful as the sun over the horizon. Beautiful as a flower in bloom, strong and independent, with thorns and all. Beautiful as an empty mug of ale being refilled. If it was a dream, could he kiss her? Would she melt under the desire expressed by his hands and his lips? He could clear off the table with one sweep of his hand and find out.


A few words of the conversation behind him reached his ears and he realized that the stupidity of the conversation made it impossible for him to be within a dream. This was real. He would have to wait on sweeping clear the table. He felt her hand though and he squeezed it gently. He still could not believe his luck that she would take his hand, scarred and calloused as it was and hold it her own. People did not often talk about the beauty of one’s hands, but he found it there in hers. Her fingers were long, soft and yet strong and confident. There was no tremble in her hand like there was in his as he held her.


He looked into her eyes. Her anchor. Before she had explained it, he wasn’t sure what she had meant. Was he a heavy burden that would drown her? He had breathed a sigh of relief when she had explained. What she said made a lot more sense and it was much nicer to hear. He did not flinch away from the thought of being her anchor.


There were those who might know him in passing that assumed he was afraid of commitment but that was not true and have never been the case. He was not afraid of commitment, he just had never found anyone to commit to. He could be her anchor though. He wanted to be her anchor. Her words and her voice told him there were layers of pain that she carried and did not often share with others. This was not something she said lightly.


"You came to see me, didn't you? I thought you were surely visiting everyone, but... you only came to see me?" 


Arinth lifted her hand and kissed it. “Only you.” He said softly. “Since I have met you, I find that no matter where my gaze falls, I only see you.” He had not fully realized it until he said the words, but he did not flinch away from them either. They sounded right.


The server came back with their food and laid it in front of them. After a moment of hesitation their hands broke away. With his right arm broken he could not hold her hand and eat at the same time. He picked up the fork awkwardly with his left and looked at her. “I might need some help.” He said with a laugh as he realized how challenging it was going to be to try and eat the food in front of him.  

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She remembered the sounds. The crack of her jaw breaking. The distant strains of music. The crash as a chair overturned. The thud of her body hitting the wall and the thump as she landed in a limp heap on the floor. The ominous sound of heavy footsteps. The sound of her own grunt as a booted foot made contact with her stomach. The loud ringing in her ears as her wind pipe was slowly constricted.


And the satisfying gurgle that issued from his mouth when she slit his throat.


They were all there, those sounds. To this day. Ingrained and preserved in her memory.  The physical pain did less damage and healed more quickly. The emotional pain...


Ely pulled her mind away from that path into darkness and stared at her handiwork in consternation. She'd taken Arinth's fork from him with the intention of cutting his food into bite sized mouthfuls. It seemed the least she could do given some of his injuries were the result of protecting her. She had, however, hacked everything into miniscule morsels during her mind's wanderings.


She hastily moderated her actions, finishing up and sliding the plate back to Arinth with the fork balanced on the side nearest his good hand, hoping he'd noticed naught amiss. She favoured him with a weak semblance of a smile, not quite meeting his eyes, and offered some murmured commonplace before busying herself with her own plate of food. She did little more than shuffle the food around though, appetite diminished by whirling thoughts of the past that, until now, she'd successfully kept locked away.


It was too soon for some subjects to be spoken of, but with those carefully balanced emotions of hers so close to tipping point, the temptation to confide was growing.


How did he manage to get under my skin so? I scarcely know him... and yet... is it fanciful to feel as if I recognise the soul of him?


Even so, the last thing she wanted was to share any details of her past that could make this man see her any differently. It would be so very easy to become accustomed to the look he'd had in his eye only moments earlier.


Ely recognised the intent behind the look; she'd been subjected to such often enough, and her response was always the same. Dismissive indifference. Whether it was fellow guards on the road or Banders in the Citadel, the entire subject left her cold. When others indulged in intimacies, Ely found her way to the nearest bar and indulged in alcohol instead. You knew where you were with a pint of ale. She'd always been that way. Experiences since leaving home may have heightened and honed her avoidance of such encounters, but they hadn't caused it. Her fingertips touched briefly to the scar crossing her temple. That process had begun on the Rahad's streets many moons before.


She glanced surreptitiously at Arinth from under thick lashes. His eyes were tight and his skin had paled in the past few minutes. He was clearly in some pain but there was nothing anyone could do about broken ribs much as she might wish to wipe his discomfort away. Hopefully the healing process would be swift.


Her visual inventory continued, slowly, making the most of his distraction as he wrestled deftly with the process of one handed eating. She was under no illusion. He knew her attention was on him. For one thing he was too good a soldier for his senses not to be attuned to observation, and for another they were each far too deeply aware of the other to not know. Whatever his reasons, he kept his own eyes focused on his plate and allowed her to look her fill.


Which is no hardship, she admitted approvingly, veiled eyes tracking the fall of black curls brushing against solid, broad shoulders which in turn became the muscular arms of a sword wielder. Large, capable hands were covered in the usual array of cuts and calluses resulting from his profession. It brought sharply to mind once more Tris' description of how apparently effortless it had been for Arinth to lift Ely and carry her one armed into the Lodge, despite serious injuries. Ely doubted it had been half so effortless as it had appeared to the young girl. But she could believe, that in full health and with the use of both arms, it certainly would be. She found a deep regret for her unconscious state at the time. The thought slid far too conveniently into speculation about just how those roughened hands might feel on the softness of her own skin, heating her blood and bringing a faint flush scoring across her cheekbones.


 She'd never experienced such instantaneous reactions to anyone before, and that knowledge coalesced into a realisation that was suddenly, blindingly, obvious. When other men looked at her, what she read in their eyes was lust. She was merely a convenience, an object upon which they affixed their wants with no regard for her. And she hated it. Had even come to somewhat resent her own appearance for the enticement it seemed to offer. It had been better to be alone.


But she'd actively welcomed Arinth's attention, and more than welcomed the clear intention expressed in his eyes, because it was rooted in genuine desire. For her. Not for any woman who crossed his path. Quite how she knew that, or how she could be sure it went beyond the purely physical, she couldn't really say. No more than she could say just why he felt so about her in particular. But she knew it for truth.


Yet there remained that lingering doubt. Doubt in her own judgement. She'd been sure she knew something once before. The depths of how wrong she'd been haunted her still. She had no intention of rushing...whatever this was destined to become. Even so, when she dragged her gaze upwards finally, it was to find Arinth watching her carefully in turn. Any pretence or prevarication was immediately impossible. It seemed they would demand honesty of each other no matter the cost. Ely's lashes lifted, her return look direct, hiding none of what she had felt in the preceding minutes and she wondered if he would recognise the raw emotion for the reciprocal desire it was. If there was any fairness in the world his skin should be scorching from the heat of it. Scorching as hers had when he brushed his lips across her hand.


Ely's humour sparked at the idea and she arched an eyebrow at her companion in amusement. They would find their way through this quagmire somehow. Finding that she was hungry all over again, she applied herself to clearing the now cooled food on her plate and then signalled to the serving woman.


"Another couple of drinks, please, Janya. No, not the ale. Spirits. And if Nowal's about, tell him I need a word later, would you?"


With a satisfied sigh, she pushed her chair back a little from the table and stretched languorously, if carefully, crossing one booted ankle over the other. "I may sleep for another month," she commented to Arinth, her smile the kind of sultry that was all the more potent for being completely uncalculated. "Do you need to rest? I can see those ribs are bothering you so don't even deny it."

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 "Do you need to rest? I can see those ribs are bothering you so don't even deny it."


Her words brought him back to reality from watching her stretch. Burn him if she didn’t have impressive legs. They looked amazing. How was anyone supposed to think? Think about what needed to be thought about that was. It was easy to think about how much he would enjoy running his fingers up and down her calves, the back of her knees, her smooth thighs. Intelligent conversation, that is what was hard to focus on. He corrected himself, not hard, difficult. Difficult was the better word to use, even in his own thoughts.


“Don’t even deny it.”  Her words repeated in his head. It was the main reason he was drawn to her. He couldn’t help but be honest with her. She knew what he was thinking. He couldn’t pretend with her. He couldn’t make a joke and feign ignorance and get away with it like he did with the majority of other people. Most importantly, he didn’t want to pretend. That same honesty that she brought out in him she also had in herself. He was drawn to it.


There was also a hardness to her. Her trust and respect were earned and not lightly. Even in the midst of a crowd she somehow still kept herself apart but without being rude or cold. It was something he did himself, but not as effectively. With other people he was often alone, even in their company. But with her he realized he wasn’t, and he didn’t want to be. He was present, and she was present, and they were both acutely aware of the other.


He tried to shake of his thoughts, glad he didn’t have to explain them. He could barely put them together for himself in a way that made sense. The point was that he was different, and she was different. She was different from anyone else he’d met and what he saw in her resonated within himself. The fingertips of her spirit had touched his and fireworks, lightening, and explosions had erupted inside.


If he tried to explain it to anyone else, they would have laughed and called him crazy. He had only just met her. He had spent more time with her, watching her rest and recover from her wounds than awake and conscious of him. It was possible, some might even say probable, that he had built her up in his mind, projecting what he wanted to see in her. He didn’t think that was true though. What he did know is that when she was there, he wasn’t alone. She was aware of him, just as he was aware of her.  


He pushed his plate away and leaned back. Looking at his plate he thought back on how she had taken it and cut the food into pieces. He had meant it as a joke when he said that he might need help. She had taken the plate without complaint though, efficiently and precisely cutting it into small pieces and then yet even smaller pieces. It had been slightly embarrassing. He was not used to others helping him. He could have managed himself, but he also didn’t want to appear like a pig, chewing huge chunks of food while she watched him. He could just imagine how she would see him, frothing at the mouth as he shoved more and more food in, half falling back out. He would take his embarrassment if it meant avoiding that kind of scene and experience.


He realized that he had gotten lost in thought and had not answered her question. “My ribs protest but they know their place. They will be fine. As for rest, I have little use for that. I avoid it when I can.” There was no point mentioning the vivid dreams that often visited him. Dreams that woke him up disoriented with a start or a cry, a pounding heart and a cold sweat. Men and women he had fought with against the Aiel. Friends in Tanchico that had fallen. The tinker woman he could have saved if he had not hesitated. Now trollocs also appeared. He felt little guilt or remorse for those he had killed but those he had failed to save were frequent visitors with hard questions he could not answer. Why had he let them die? Why hadn’t he saved them?


Janya brought their drinks. Arinth looked at his with relief and picked it up. Sometimes all it took was one wayward thought like he had of his dreams to get swept away into the deep currents of darker places. He took a gulp of the drink. It was strong and provided a comforting numbing burn as it went down. “I am reluctant to ask if you are tired.” He said. “You must be, with this being your first time out of bed after your injury. I should tell you to rest but I don’t want to lose your company so quickly. That is selfish of me, but I cannot help it.”


He took another drink and looked down. He was talking too much. He was bound to say something stupid if he hadn’t already. Relationships were like a dance and Arinth had never been a good dancer. You either appeared too eager and desperate or too cold and aloof. He had heard some people talk about how they got others to be interested in them by pretending to be too busy for them or not interested. Irritation flared up in Arinth. He wasn’t about to play those childish games.


As Ely reached her hand forward, he took it and held it, not realizing until it was too late that she had been reaching for her drink. He chuckled as he held her hand, unsure of whether it was worse to keep holding it or to let go so soon after taking hold of it. “I am sorry. I have a well developed talent for making a mess of things it seems.”

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The Rascal was filling up now, Ely noted, tilting her head back by the smallest increment to better enjoy the sensation of the warm, amber liquid flowing down her throat. The slow burn as the warmth spread through her chest and stomach was satisfying. It somewhat dulled the ache in her back, leaving a pleasant, hazy buzz behind. She took another sip for good measure and placed the glass back on the table. Training would be largely over at this hour, theory classes coming to a close, troops returning from patrol as yet others headed out; men and women would be seeking hot food and strong ale to wash the day away. Down time. Those few hours with little to no responsibility and the comfort of a little camaraderie.


Her mouth twisted in self mockery. She hadn't ever truly found that comfort. Maybe in the bottom of a glass, but not with people. Relationships didn't go beyond acquaintanceship for her. There was too much alcohol and laughter between herself and Arkin for that to be anything more than superficial so far. The closest she'd come was probably with the medic. There'd been a definite possibility of friendship with Jehryn once, or so she'd hoped. For her part at least. She couldn't speak for him. An intelligent man and one, she'd suspected, who had little interest in women which was always a positive. It allowed her to be completely at ease. A rare state. Their few meetings usually resulted in interesting conversations too. But the man had died in the retreat from Tanchico. Ely had taken ill on the road with fever, and missed the entire mission but Arkin had told her later, very reluctantly, of Jehryn's actions. An unintentional hero. It saddened her deeply to think on lost possibilities.


Had she been lonely all those months? She pondered the question for a few seconds. Maybe a little. But probably less lonely than simply... alone. She'd had to be self sufficient for a very long time. Until now, she turned her head away from her perusal of the room, her eyes flicking to Arinth. He was taking a little time to respond to her question, seemingly caught up in his own thoughts. She'd about given up when he did answer.


"My ribs protest but they know their place. They will be fine. As for the rest, I have little use for that. I avoid it when I can."


The remark was casual, but for Ely, so very telling. It reminded her of their first meeting, and the haunted look behind his eyes that had tugged at her. From all she'd heard of Tanchico it had been nightmare enough, but who knew what other battles he'd seen and what other losses inhabited those early morning hours, taunting him with what ifs and maybes? They all had their demons.


"I am reluctant to ask if you are tired." He said. "You must be, with this being your first time out of bed after your injury. I should tell you to rest but I don't want to lose your company so quickly. That is selfish of me, but I cannot help it."


His words wrapped her around with warmth, comfort and reassurance. Her presence would be missed. By him. This rather miraculous person before her would feel the loss if she wasn't there. His supposed selfishness acted like a salve for all the concerns that had troubled her...was it only that morning? It felt longer. She reached for her glass only to find her hand intercepted and caught gently by his, but his grip immediately loosened.


Anyone trained, as sword fighters were, as they were, to read their opponent's body language, to interpret those minute nuances of movement that could give them a warning, however small, of when and where the next attack would come, would have been able to sense Arinth's imminent pulling away. As finely attuned as Ely was to him in this instance, it was perhaps even less of a wonder that she could, to some extent, interpret the reasons behind his ambivalence. Had they not both done the same a multitude of times since they'd first laid eyes on each other? Searching for contact, needing that contact, yet second guessing it out of doubt or fear of rebuff?


"I am sorry. I have a well developed talent for making a  mess of things it seems."


Ely's own fingers tightened around his hand, preventing the withdrawal, and she leaned further forward. Her demeanour changed like quicksilver as she glared intently at Arinth. "Stop it. Just... stop." 


It was an instinctual protest. Had they not both made their feelings clear? Had she not?


He was opening his mouth to reply, a faint look of puzzlement on his face, but she forestalled whatever he had to say by the simple expedient of touching the forefinger of her other hand to his lips accompanied by a faint shake of her head. There were too many people in the bar now. Bodies were intruding into the safe space they'd had to converse in. Frustration flitted across her expression momentarily. For her to say straight out all the things she wanted to say, without an audience, she'd have to be closer.


Ely's eyes lit with determination as she stood, remembering to make each movement with care despite her impatience. His eyes followed her progress with curiousity, clearly uncertain of her intention, but he didn't have long to wait. She edged the few steps required to reach his side of the table, nudged that highly inconvenient object out of the way a little with her good hip, stepped between his knees and sank onto his lap. She was careful to keep her weight on his right leg and tried to avoid putting any undue strain on his left side at all. Between his broken ribs and the nasty wound on his leg, she didn't want to make matters worse.


She sensed his arm curving automatically around behind her to protect her back from the bustle of the room, and reached around to capture his hand once more, placing it gently on her waist. That she'd deliberately blocked her own sight of the room, giving him the gift of her complete trust by placing her safety entirely in his hands, was a huge step for Ely. One she wouldn't have dreamed she'd take only a few hours before. He had that poleaxed expression again which made her grin. She felt a little that way herself. As if sitting at opposite sides of the table hadn't given her problems enough, this proximity was having all kinds of effects which she struggled to ignore; with very little success. She had to wipe away that hesitation he had once and for all though.


Ely turned her head, placing her mouth next to his ear, pitching her voice low, meant for him alone. "I don't seem to see things quite like you do.  This talent you speak of, is it what helped you to save my life? Does that constitute 'a mess'? Did it make you sit at my bedside watching over my recovery? Was that 'a mess' that you'd prefer never happened?" She lifted her right hand, cupping his face with her palm, tracing a path with her thumb across the scar on his cheek. "Or perhaps you mean this? You consider it 'a mess' that you crave my touch enough to dare to take my hand?"


Ely drew back, holding him with the fierceness of her gaze, allowing him to judge the honesty in her words, in her eyes as they demanded his acceptance of their equality in these intense reactions one to the other. "Did I not invite you here because I wished your company? Grasp your hand first, because I wished your touch?" She felt his fingers tighten possessively at her waist in reply and pressed home her point. "And now... when I see your wish, to touch me in turn, do you think it offends me? You know better. You sense better if you ignore the games your head is playing with you. Do not apologise for taking what has already been freely given. Your touch is wanted, Arinth. You are wanted. If there is any 'mess' here then it is surely one we are creating together." 


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What had started out as a secluded, quiet conversation had changed. The room was suddenly crowded, and the rising wave of unintelligent noise was irritating. He saw the same feeling flash across Ely’s eyes as she took notice of the room. With gentle yet decisive movements she closed the distance and planted herself on his good leg.


Is this love? The thought crossed his mind as she settled into place. Any woman that could do what she had just done without the slightest hint of effort was worthy of it. He pushed the thought away. The echoes of amused laughter filled his head. I do respect her though and burn me if everything she does isn’t perfectly done in such a way that my affection only grows.


He listened to what she said, even if he was reluctant to truly believe it. The fierceness in her eyes spoke with as much conviction as her words. The two combined were enough for him. He tried to grin. Sooner or later he’d end up disappointing her and then he would be able to tell her that he'd told her so. What this was and would be, he was in it and so was she.  


He looked into her eyes. Despite the noise around them all his senses were focused directly on her. She was so close. From where she sat, he was sure that she could feel his pulse. His right arm was wrapped around her waist. He could feel the firm curve of her body and it sent a fire through him. She looked so fierce and honest in that moment. He leaned forward and kissed her. The kiss was gentle. It was tempting to pour all of his passion into the kiss and show her how much he felt. There would be time for that though. This first kiss was about more than just passion. He wanted her to know that, while there was definitely that side of things, it was far from all he wanted with her.


“Ely, I believe you. I want you too. I don’t know enough words to find the words that can express how strongly I do, but I do. I know it with full certainty and no hesitation.”


Suddenly behind them there was a crash and a commotion. Arinth turned to glance over his shoulder. His body protested, pain flaring up, and he grimaced. He saw a group of cavalry picking up one of their comrades who had fallen to the floor. An empty mug of ale was broken at his side.


Arinth almost dismissed the scene altogether. Cavalry were not known to have good balance even when they weren’t drinking, and everyone knew they held their alcohol as well as a sieve. It wasn’t unusual to see them collapsing to the floor. One of the man’s friends groaned though and fell to his knees, his face twisted in a combination of pain and confusion.


Arinth glanced at Ely and saw her face go through a range of expressions as she processed the scene unfolding. Alarm bells were going off in his head. Something did not feel right. This felt like more than normal cavalry incompetence.

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The kiss was unexpected, catching her unawares; and it told her everything she needed to be told at that moment. It wasn't forceful, nor yet demanding, or indeed any of the things that might have brought her doubts sharply into focus. Instead it was gentle, respectful. A light, teasing promise of what would come to be; a silent vow that whatever this was between them, it was neither brief nor casual as she had feared.


And it curled her toes more surely than the former could ever have done.


It was over all too soon, and Ely tried to gather her wits enough to listen to what Arinth was telling her. You're turning into a milk sop. Stop grinning at him like a lovesick fool! His words weren't calculated to help with that internal instruction, her heart tripping over its beat as he confirmed how serious he was. Enough. You both feel it. The rest... time will take care of the rest.


A loud crash and muffled thud behind Arinth had them both turning their heads, to discover the source of the disturbance. A cavalryman, collapsed on the floor and being picked up by his brothers-in-arms was the scene that met their curious looks. Such commotions were hardly unusual in the Citadel's bars, and it might be expected not to occasion much comment. Ely, however, was immediately struck by the fact that it was far too early for anyone to be quite so inebriated. None of the other occupants of The Red Rascal had been there as long as they had. Something nagged at the back of her mind and she frowned, trying to capture it.


A rowdy night of drinking games...her unheard of reaction the next morning...Arkin's laughing face... her voice demanding to know what he'd done to her drink...the men at the Lodge suffering even as she suffered, long into the day when hangovers should have been gone... two medic's assistants talking statistics in a corridor ...soldiers dying in unusual numbers...talk of the fermenta...


There was a sound like tumblers clicking into place as each memory coalesced and fell into order with the others.


Another man fell to the ground, groaning and looking to be in some pain. But what Ely noticed about him had her gripping Arinth's shoulder tightly. She turned back to him, debating how much to say. Tell him everything, that inner voice prompted. "Trust me?" she queried softly. He nodded instantly, his eyes questioning. "That man is more than simply in his cups. See how his nose is bleeding...heavily?" He checked with a casual glance backwards and nodded sharply again. "I need to speak with Nowal sooner rather than later. Stay here and wait for me, or come with me if you will, but leave it a few minutes after I'm gone. Whatever you do, this is just a normal evening and nothing is wrong at all."


Ely stood casually, stretching, as if in no hurry whatsoever. When she moved away from the table, it was with a step calculated to distract any red-blooded male. There was a knack to rolling your hips just so, and it wasn't the most comfortable thing to do with the wound she currently sported across one of hers. But it was effective, very effective, and she could carry it off with an air of complete unconcern. If people were staring at her rear, they weren't watching what she was actually doing. She paused briefly behind one of the cavalry soldiers who still seemed sober but she didn't look directly at him. Her gaze wandered around the rest of the bar as if searching for someone or something, and she spoke with barely moving lips.


"Private. Don't look at me and don't speak. Let's just accept that I outrank you and you're going to do exactly as I say. Now, get that man to the medics as soon as you can. Find CMO Engerran. Grey hair, older man, a little forgetful. Tell him Corporal Sidoro said 'corenroot'. Got that?" A quietly murmured agreement was all she waited for before continuing on her route, conscious of the eyes that followed her progress. Or at least the progress of her hips.


She came to a sassy halt before the two bouncers standing either side of the bar's door. "Jak. Rab." Her eyes twinkled at the two men and they both grinned appreciatively before Rab turned back to watching the room.


"Evenin' Ely," Jak greeted her quietly, "what tricks be you playin' orf? It do no be like you callin' attention to yersen, not thatta way leastwise, ne'er 'tis."


Ely laughed. She was almost certain that was more words than she'd ever heard the man say before in one sentence. She slapped him on the shoulder as if they were simply sharing a joke. "Don't worry your head about it, my friend. Do me a favour, make sure those cavs get out of here quickly but with as little fuss as possible. I'm going to speak with the boss. But have a think, both of you. If you've seen any strangers hanging around in the past week or two, I'd like to hear about it later."


Rab nodded briefly, clearly listening to the exchange if not participating, and Jak winked his understanding, "That do no' be a hard ask, lass. We'll be here iffen you need. Don't we always be havin' your back, so?" Ely rose up on tip toe to plant a kiss on the man's cheek.


"Always, Jak. Always," she responded with a warm smile. "Nowal's upstairs?" At his agreement, she turned away, laughing at him again, over her shoulder, as his hand slapped her rump. She threw one word back at him, "Rascal!" and his own laughter followed her as she took the first set of four stairs in two long strides.


Ely quickly rounded the bend towards the second flight, knowing that it would, thankfully, take her beyond the view of the room below. She took a moment, leaning against the wall, breathing deeply, and recovering from her antics. Her back was playing merry hell, protesting every movement. She shouldn't have really pushed so hard on her first day out of the medical wing but how could she ignore any of today's events?


She didn't dare look around the corner to see whether Arinth was following or not, so she gave it a few moments then continued on up the second flight of stairs, followed by a third, which brought her to an unusually solid looking door. She knew it would be locked. Nowal was no fool. His security was tight and he protected his valuables well. It made all these goings on niggle at her even more.


She heard a heavy step on the stairs below, the frisson of warmth that ran up her spine telling her who it was without even looking. The silence was deafening as he stopped behind her and she knew he must have questions about her behaviour. But he'd said he trusted her and to give him his due, whatever he was thinking right now, he held his tongue. She raised her hand, rapping a short tattoo on the door with her knuckles. It would sound random to anyone not paying attention but was, in fact, a specific series of short and long knocks without which there would be no entry.


Nowal, looking every inch the prize fighter that he used to be, opened the door to them himself, ushering them into a surprisingly luxurious room that served as an office come reception. "Ely!" the man looked delighed, enveloping her in a hug that was gentle despite his size. It still made her wince at the undue pressure on her bruised shoulders. He noticed her reaction, withdrawing immediately, offering a quick apology, and holding her at arm's length for a good inspection. "Are you well then? Should you not still be in bed?!" 


"I'm well enough, Nowal, my thanks. I'll come visit you again and fill you in. For now, there's trouble afoot. This is Arinth. He's my.... ," she found she had no idea how to express what he what he was to her, and rushed on, "...friend. Infantryman like myself. You can trust him." If Nowal noticed her hesitation, he gave no sign. "I need you to ask Janya to bring us two samples of each of your ales. The first lot should come straight from the taps, the second straight from the barrels...on separate trays."


Nowal didn't bother asking for an explanation, simply leaving the room to arrange matters. What Ely asked for in this establishment, she got. She caught the look on Arinth's face, reading his surprise at the lack of argument. Another explanation she was due him. They were mounting up and she wondered how long it would take before he asked questions that she'd have to answer. And more importantly, how long it would be before he got answers that he didn't want to hear...



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  • 3 weeks later...

Apparently Ely had shared Arinth’s assessment of the situation. Despite the fact that the men of the cavalry were notorious for their inability to hold liquor, something was wrong. Something felt very different. Before he had a chance to think or stop her, she was halfway across the room and crossing the other half confidently in a way that he could not help but admire.


He made to rise before remembering that she had told him to wait. He wasn’t sure how long he was supposed to wait but each second felt like an eternity. If something wasn’t right, then there was danger. If there was danger then he should be with her, to protect her. He wasn’t supposed to be lounging about on the other side of the room.


He glanced over, ready to cover the distance and join her despite her cryptic request to wait. What he saw hit him like a punch in the gut. The bouncer smacked her butt and she laughed. The touch had been confident and familiar, and from her reaction not unwelcome. The shocked hurt turned to anger. He was a fool.


He stood up, upending the table as he did. Glass and plate clattered on the floor behind him as he strode forward. The table where the cavalry had been was already empty. The sudden sickness of the men had driven away other patrons as well who had no interest in coming down with the same illness.


Arinth stopped in front of the two bouncers. They regarded him in a less friendly manner than they had Ely. Arinth returned their look with a hard one of his own. They made no immediate move to allow him to pass and he found himself face to face with the man who had slapped her delicious rump, an act he had not had the pleasure of himself yet. Arinth’s hand clenched into a fist. He resisted the urge to rearrange the man’s nose and shouldered his way past him forcefully. They let him continue on, though he had half wished they had decided to stop him.


He reached an office upstairs and saw Ely talking to a man. She noted his presence and introduced him to the man. She seemed to hesitate and stumble over her words, but he heard very clearly how she chose to introduce him as her friend.


She turned back to the man and rattled off a series of brisk instructions. He stood there reeling, feeling like she had just kicked him in the balls repeatedly, and she was acting like everything in the world was normal. He was a fool.


The man hurried out of the room to follow her instructions. Clearly, she planned to try to get to the bottom of what was going on and why the cavalry men had gotten sick. She turned to look at him and for the first time he felt like he did not know her at all. How could he have really thought that he had before with just a look? He could teach classes on how to be stupid.


“Well it looks like you have everything under control here, friend,” he said. The words were hard and cold. With that he turned and walked out of the room.  

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Ely froze, her limbs leaden, staring at the empty space before her in disbelief. Her earlier joy in the day's developments dissipated in those few short seconds as the echo of Arinth's parting words hung in the air; a pointed accusation that cut all the deeper for its cold delivery.


How exactly was she supposed to describe him? They weren't strangers, nor yet lovers. One brief kiss didn't stretch that far, no matter its impact. Even if it had, she wouldn't advertise something so private. A single day in each other's company and he expected... what precisely? That it gave him some kind of ownership over her or her actions? Annoyance stirred. They had agreed to spend time together, accepted their strong feelings were mutual. Or so she'd thought. But... how did she begin to label that for the convenience of others? She wasn't the type to spill her innermost thoughts; to put her heart on display wasn't a thing she'd even contemplated when introducing him to Nowal. She couldn't help but wonder, if the tables were reversed, what words he would have found to introduce her.


He believes he has cause for anger but it stems from a lack of understanding. Her conscience pricked a little even so. He could have asked me to explain but instead he suspected the worst... and walked out! Annoyance fanned into anger, simmering in the background. You said it yourself. It's been one day. Did you expect him to know you on so short an acquaintance?  The voice in her head scoffed at the very idea. That was the crux of the matter. Because she felt like she knew him. Trusted him. And it scared her on so many levels. But it seemed her trust wasn't reciprocated. If he can hurt you with one sentence, how will you feel when he walks out and doesn't come back? Is your pride worth that loss? Anger fled in the face of the stark answer to that.


I've never run after any man and I'm not starting now! The irony of the thought was not lost on Ely given her feet had already carried her across the room to the doorway, gaining speed as she hit the stairwell in time to see Arinth turn the corner at the bottom. You never wanted any man enough to run after him before. The sardonic accusation blossomed clear in her mind, panic flaring at the intrinsic truth it held, at how the lack of his presence made her feel... and the possibility it might be permanent. Long legs flew down the stairs, taking them in reckless jumps, two and three at a time, with no consideration for her injuries, completely oblivious to the jolts of pain searing across her back with each landing. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, one hand caught the door frame instinctively, leather clad feet sliding around the corner.


The bar was empty of patrons, the evening's events clearly taking a toll on business, despite her best efforts. Only the bouncers and one other man remained, blocking the entrance to the establishment. She didn't have time to worry over it all now though as Arinth strode towards that very door.


"Wait!" Ely's voice was low but her tone compelling. "Arinth...please...just wait!"


He didn't turn but he did stop, and she let the breath go that she hadn't even realised she was holding. The relief was short lived. Jak took a menacing step forward, a dark scowl pulling his brows down.


"Yer upset, El. This cove be botherin' ye, lass?" the big man's fists clenched in illustration of his thoughts about that possibility, and she watched ruefully as Arinth's hands contracted in response.


"No!" the command cracked, whip-like, through the room. She took the remaining steps in a rush, slipping around Arinth to interpose herself between the men. "Stand down, Jak. This is a matter...," she stumbled over her words for the second time that evening, "...a very personal matter. Don't interfere. And while we're talking of upsetting me," her tone took on an edge, "You overstepped this evening. That was an impossible situation to put me in when you knew I was trying to avoid a scene!"


"Ach, ah know it, El. I did be gettin' carried away with yon game ye were playin'! Sorry an' all," Jak hung his head a little, looking shamefaced, which was so incongruous that Ely would normally have been hard pressed not to laugh. As it was, she had more immediate problems on her mind.


"Well, it's done now... and it's not likely I'll pull that trick again. Gar, Rab, come here," she requested, addressing the other men. Gar moved up beside Jak, a half head shorter and looking only slightly less like a brick wall. The bigger man slung an arm around him. Rab halted a half step behind his friends.


"Arinth, I'd like to introduce you to Jak...and to Garen," she paused, turning and fixing a hard stare on the man who was quickly turning her world upside down. If his voice had been cold earlier, hers was like ice now, "Gar is Jak's... friend." She almost spat the word, quirking an eyebrow to doubly emphasise her meaning and watched as, even in his current mood, understanding registered. "And this is Rab. You've already met his wife, Janya. They're all employees...and friends. I own half of this place." Half turning her head, she spoke over shoulder, "Jak... Rab...this is Arinth. He has free run of The Rascal ... should he choose to avail himself of it. Now, if you could all give us a moment..."


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Ely waited, fingers tightening and releasing around the hilts of her daggers in barely suppressed impatience. The men acknowledged Arinth and then indicated acceptance of her own words. They were naturally curious over this new development and she could imagine the gossip it was going to cause among the staff. Once they had retreated outside, leaving the door ajar behind them, she faced Arinth again, her expression reserved.


"You're angry," she began. "I don't know exactly why... although I could hazard a partial guess. The thing is, I'm not a mind reader, Arinth. I don't want to have to guess what's wrong. I'd rather you choose to communicate. I may have misjudged my actions and choices tonight. I'll grant you that, if only because I acted before sharing my plan with you. Leaving you working with half the story was unfair. Understand that any errors came purely from haste, not from a place of harm. The last few minutes should have demonstrated how different the whole picture could be if you would but hear it."


Ely stopped speaking, her heart contracting as though someone had wrapped a fist around it and squeezed. He looked back at her silently. He was listening, but her words seemed to mean nothing at all. "Maybe I expected too much too soon in asking you to trust me... but is your opinion of me truly so low? Do you trust your own instinct so little?"


Silence continued to reign. Ely finally raised her chin in acceptance. "Know this if nothing else...," she laid a hand lightly on his arm as she moved to pass him, dark eyes raising to search his briefly, in a last search for any sign that this mattered, "...I've been nothing but honest with you."  


Nothing. The hand dropped. She deserved being valued, and he either knew her worth or he didn't. There would be no begging here.


"I'm sure you can see yourself out."


Ely walked up the stairs at an unhurried pace, refusing to show how close she was to falling apart. Her vision blurred, forcing her to slide a hand along the wall for guidance, but she kept going until she reached the top. Outside the office door she paused to press the heels of her hands to her eyes, slowly pushing both the threatening tears, and the emotion away. The dull ache inside made her want to curl up and hide. The Light consume him! How had he reduced her to such a state? Was this how love felt?


"Bloody ashes, it's simple exhaustion! That's all. A long day... and a lot of pain. Tomorrow, all will be well again." She gathered a blanket of calm, wrapping it around herself by sheer force of will, and finally straightened her spine. Trust... the words whispered through her mind, mocking her resolve. You're an idiot.


"Enough, this too will be endured." Survival. That she could do. She had other things to do that took precedence over her bruised feelings. When she eventually stalked into the office, her mask was firmly back in place, if a little paler than normal.


Nowal sat behind his desk, watching her carefully, taking in the stiffness of her movements as she crossed the room to take the wing chair opposite him.


"I'm fine," she muttered, aware of his concern, perusing the contents of the tray before her.


"You're not then," he stated clearly. Her eyes flew to his, signalling a clear warning. He might be the closest thing she had to a father but she wasn't ready for a cross examination. "Fine. I'll drop it. For now." He nodded at the tray. "That's all we have on tap at the moment. Two of the supplies are waiting on a re-stock so the pipes are being cleaned."


Ely nodded. Four ales, eight glasses. She lifted each in turn, considering the colour and sniffing delicately at the contents. Nothing struck her as odd. No strange scent set alarms ringing.


"If you won't talk about yourself, are you at least going to tell me what this is all about?" Nowal asked. His gaze was curious but patient.


"I suspect Banders are being poisoned," she stated flatly.


His face became serious and he leaned forward intently, "That's quite an assertion, Ely. How sure are you? And why?"


"Why? Someone's trying to take the Band out of the equation, or at a minimum they want to make us a less effective force. And yes, I'm sure," she filled him in quickly, outlining all the small details at her disposal. "It all sounds sketchy taken individually, but put it all together and something is very wrong."


Nowal nodded thoughtfully, steepling short, stubby fingers under his chin while he digested the news.


Ely took a napkin from the tray in her left hand and dipped her right forefinger into the first glass before touching it to the tip of her tongue and wiping the remaining liquid onto the napkin. She repeated the exercise with all eight glasses.


"There's nothing wrong with any of these, Nowal," she commented at last, taking a substantial swallow of her favourite Ebou Dari ale. And another. Better. "Whatever was going on with those cavalry guys earlier, it wasn't caused by our ales. Let's keep it that way. I want the stock room and all entrances locked unless they absolutely have to be open. Deliveries need to be checked by one of us personally before anything goes through our system."


Nowal nodded a sharp agreement. "I'll take care of it, Ely. Do you think we need extra staff?"


"No. Let's not risk strangers around here. Unless.. see if Jak or Rab can recommend someone. Preferably someone they know very well. But no new faces." Ely dragged a hand through her hair, and sighed, trying to decide on her next steps. "I'll have to speak with the men who were taken to the infirmary, presuming they survived."


"Not tonight though, girl," Nowal's tone brooked no argument. "You're fresh out of the infirmary yourself! Look at the state of you. You're going to keel over unless I miss my mark...which I don't! Get off back to the barracks and sleep. The rest will still be there to deal with in the mornin'."


Ely gave in gracefully, the ghost of a smile curving her lips. The exhaustion was strong enough to prevent her arguing. "You're right, of course. I'll be back as soon as I have news."



Story Continues In:- Drinking is Bad For Your Health (Part Deux)


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