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Christine

Returning an Old Favor (ATTN: Arath)

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“Oh, and Michelle, don’t forget to wipe off all the tables.  I don’t want to see you back in this kitchen until all of those tables are spotless!”  Oh, shut up you old hag.  They are spotless.  Sorry you can see things that no one else can!   Michelle just had to roll her eyes and sigh, moving her skirts out of the kitchen and onto the dining floor as her boss, the evil Innkeeper Mirenna, continued to yell in the back.  The woman over-worked her, under-paid her, and over-stressed her.  Couldn’t Michelle just get a moment’s break?

 

She quickly tossed on a smile as she served a bowl of soup to two men and gave them both new mugs of ale.  They returned her smile and one slid his hand around her waste, joking around with her.  His words went in one ear and out the other as she just giggled and flirted for a moment, praying that a good tip was left on the table.  Light help me if I have to sleep on the streets tonight.

 

Hearing Mirenna’s words still ringing in her ear, she quickly grabbed a wet rag and began wiping down all the other tables.  It was midmorning and, while most people were just setting up shop, she couldn’t help but wish that more people would come into the inn.  She did not want a busy day, but needed the gold desperately.

 

The tables were wiped down, hastily, and she went back to check on the men.  There was no one else in the dining room, so she figured it was better to amuse herself out here and maybe make a few extra coin than go back into the kitchen and hear that old woman yell.  She heard the door open and close, the annoying bell ringing as a patron stepped inside.  “MICHELLE!” she heard yelled from the kitchen, and she had to simply wave her hand towards the patron. 

 

“Take a seat wherever you please, and I’ll be back in a moment.”   She hastily flashed a smile to the two men, who needed more ale, and she dashed back to the kitchen.  Mirenna was fussing about her bags, which she had stored under a cabinet.  “How many times do I have to tell you; you don’t live in this kitchen!”  Michelle had to glance away, wincing, remembering that just the evening before, her only home and apartment had burned down.  All she had in the world was stored in those bags, and she didn’t even know where she would sleep tonight.

 

“I have to get back out there,” she said, grabbing three mugs of ale, and dashing out of the kitchen before the old woman could say anything more.  Two mugs went to her men that were almost done, and she saw them both shifting for a few coins from their fat purses.  Her fingers ached to steal a few extra coins, but she held back, knowing that she would feel so guilty later on.  Damn my conscience.

 

Going over to the patron, she saw his head bowed low, and a dark cloak over his shoulders.  She had seen a few men like this before.  They wore all black, and she had an unfortunate feeling they were a part of some devious organization that could break her in half with just a glance.  Well, doesn’t hurt to try and be flirtatious.

 

Setting down the mug of ale, she leaned down towards him, smiling.  He was bent over, looking at something in his lap.  “Hi there!  What can I get for you?” she asked, wearing her best smile and batting her eyes.  He looked up, and she thought she would pass out.  This was a face she had never thought would be seen again.  “ARATH!”

 

Michelle Linwood

 

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Arath didn't care much for recruiting duty.  Especially in Caemlyn.  The Asha'man weren't particularly welcome here, and things could become dangerous for anyone they were caught talking to.  Burn Brent and his bloody recruiting assignment, thought Arath in a sullen mood.  At least with his rank he could make others do all of the actual work while he waited comfortably in an inn.  Which is exactly what he intended to do.

 

Picking an inn at random from a poorer part of the city, Arath walked inside, enjoying the reprieve from the rain.  Another bad thing about cities.  Unless you wanted to flaunt what you were, you had to put up with getting wet in the rain.  Choosing a table in a far corner of the mostly deserted common room, Arath took a seat.  Reaching into a pocket he pulled out a small thing he had stolen from the Stone of Tear.  As far as he could tell it wasn't a ter'angreal, nor did it have anything to do with the power.  But the puzzle cube was a challenge that he couldn't resist.  Maybe he might be able to solve the thing now that he had a little time.

 

He was deep into his frustrations when the serving girl game by with a mug of ale.  “Hi there!  What can I get for you?” He glanced up, meaning to ask what they had in the kitchen, but stopped when he saw her familiar face.  She blinked in surprise as well before she all but shouted his name.

 

"Michelle?" he asked vaguely, disbelieving.  "What are you ... Why ... Hi," he stumbled.  Where did you start with someone you hadn't seen for nearly two years?

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"Michelle?" Oh my God… Oh my God… What in the hell happened to him… She couldn’t think.   "What are you ... Why ... Hi," Hi.  Hi?  That’s all he can say?   She slapped him across the face as hard as she could.  He had left her without even saying goodbye!  She had needed him, and he had left her!  “YOU LEFT ME!” she yelled, furious at him.  And then she fell into the chair beside him, hugging him tight.  “Oh my God, I thought you were dead.”

 

He seemed in as much shock as she was, and she looked around the empty room.  The other men had somehow disappeared, and she pointed at Arath.  “STAY THERE! If you move, I swear to the Creator I will hunt you down and kill you myself.” He nodded, in shock, and she dashed over to grab the things off the other table and rushed them into the kitchen.  Mirenna tried to say something about cleaning, but Michelle ignored her, rushing back out of the kitchen.

 

Back on the dining floor, she slid back over to the table where Arath now stood, his face half shock and half confused.  She grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the dining room and, grabbing the keys off the hook behind the front desk, ran up the stairs, her skirts swirling, and pulled Arath into the first room she got to, opening the door with her keys, and shutting it and locking it.  As soon as she got in there, she had to pace for a moment, in shock, thinking. 

 

What in the hell had happened to him?   She had honestly thought he was dead.  Why did he leave her like that?  He had been her only friend and left her.  She looked back at him, standing in the doorway, a sad look on his face.  He was the same Arath, although a lot cleaner.  He had the same messy brown hair and the crazy green eyes.  She couldn’t help but hug him again, noticing that he was a lot stronger and healthier than he used to be.  She didn’t even care that she got wet from his damp clothes.

 

He held her tight for a moment before she pulled back, slapping him again.  “You left me!” she said, ready to cry.  “What happened to you?  I ended up in this rat hole, and have been struggling to get by, and you disappeared on me and just randomly show up looking all… clean!”   She hugged him again, in shock, but so furious.

 

Michelle Linwood

 

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Arath's ears rung, and his vision blurred as Michelle's full arm slap caught him square in the face.  Right before she tackled him in his chair with a great hug.

 

“STAY THERE! If you move, I swear to the Creator I will hunt you down and kill you myself.”  He nodded dumbly as she ran back into the kitchens.  Light, what is she still doing here?  Arath could have sworn she would either be running an inn by now, or be back with her family in Lugard.  She was never the kind to let people walk all over her.  He heard shouts in the kitchens as Michelle ran through.  Rubbing his jaw where she had hit him, Arath retrieved his puzzle cube from where it had fallen, rising just in time to see Michelle barrel into him and then drag him upstairs.

 

As his old friend locked them into a room, Arath wondered if she didn't intend to kill him anyway.  She looked livid.  Torn between screaming and tears.  He suddenly felt guilty for leaving like he had.  Not that he'd had much of a choice in the matter.  He hadn't even had time to gather up his own belongings, let alone say goodbye to anyone.  But looking at the situation he had left Michelle in . . . it was hard to imagine what she'd gone through.

 

After another hug, another head ringing slap, and yet another hug, Arath looked for appropriate words.  "I ... it's a long story.  Let's just say I tried to cut the wrong purse.  I had the choice between dying in an alley, or being taken elsewhere to learn to- ... to learn some special skills.  I didn't mean to leave you without a word."  Another slap though this one wasn't quite as hard.  Maybe his face was just numb.  "I've always wondered what happened with you.  I never thought you'd be ... here."

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"I ... it's a long story.  Let's just say I tried to cut the wrong purse.  I had the choice between dying in an alley, or being taken elsewhere to learn to- ... to learn some special skills.  I didn't mean to leave you without a word."  Michelle couldn’t stop her hand as she slapped him again.  He deserved it, but her hand was starting to feel a little numb from the slapping.  Hmm I wonder if I can find something else to hit him with around here… "I've always wondered what happened with you.  I never thought you'd be ... here."

 

Michelle had to laugh, bitterly, at that.  Still here, in this dump?  She knew exactly what he meant.  She sunk down onto the bed, sighing. “You know I have too much pride for my own good,” she said, resting her head on the banister of the bed. “I couldn’t go home, and after you left… things just kept getting worse.  No one would hire me, and I had to work these low jobs.”

 

He sunk onto the bed beside her, and she moved to rest her head on his shoulder.  It was nice to finally have someone she could actually TALK to without being yelled at or having to flirt.  “And the place I was staying burned down last night, and I sold my pretty horse.  Do you remember?  She was so beautiful and the only horse I have ever owned.”

 

“Well, I am now to my last few coin.  I don’t have much, but I am still surviving.”   She didn’t want to think about her issues.  In fact, she didn’t even want to think about five minutes into the future, because eventually, she would crash into tonight and not even having somewhere to sleep… unless she hid somewhere in the kitchen.

 

Wiping off her tears, she sat up and turned to Arath, smiling. “So tell me, where did you go?  Special skills?  Come now, what happened to you?” She could see a small mark rising up on his cheek and she tenderly touched it, feeling a little bad.   “Oh Arath, I am so sorry for the mark!”

 

Michelle Linwood

 

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“So tell me, where did you go?  Special skills?  Come now, what happened to you?”  Arath fished around wildly for some way to explain without revealing anything.  This was not something he really wanted to discuss at the moment.  Fortunately, Michelle provided her own distraction, and a moment to think.  “Oh Arath, I am so sorry for the mark!”  Judging from the satisfied look on her face when she had done it, Arath would beg to differ, but he wisely kept his silence.

 

"It's fine.  I've had worse, believe me.  If I recall correctly, you've sewn up worse on me before."  She smiled at that.  Much better than being slapped.  "What I do now is ... it's a bit hard to describe.  I don't live very far away actually.  About a day's ride.  But with what I do it's a bit hard to get away.  I'm kind of a soldier, but that's not really it.  More of a ..." Asha'man "Guardian.  A special protector.  I can't really explain it well."  The annoyed look on her face told him that his explanation wasn't going to cut it.  He steered the subject away to something of more immediate concern.  "We can talk about that some other time.  Now that I know where you are."  He paused for a moment.  "You said your home burnt down last night?  Where are you staying now?"

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"It's fine.  I've had worse, believe me.  If I recall correctly, you've sewn up worse on me before." She smiled, her face feeling as if it had lit up.  He was still the same man that had been her friend a few years back.  "What I do now is ... it's a bit hard to describe.  I don't live very far away actually.  About a day's ride.  But with what I do it's a bit hard to get away.  I'm kind of a soldier, but that's not really it.  More of a ... Guardian.  A special protector.  I can't really explain it well." 

 

Did he honestly think that she would let him get away with it? "We can talk about that some other time.  Now that I know where you are."   If he HONESTLY thought she would let him just avoid the subject… "You said your home burnt down last night?  Where are you staying now?"  Ok… maybe I will let him avoid the subject for now…

 

She sighed, letting her head fall back onto his shoulder.  “I… don’t know.  I was hoping to make enough today to try and get a room… somewhere.  And if all else failed, I…” she couldn’t bring herself to say it.  No woman, at least with her morals, would want to say she was going to sell her body. “I have nothing else to sell.  And all the money I have is pretty much gone.”

 

He was about to say something, when she turned to him, anger back in her. “Quit changing the subject!  You have to tell me where you are and what happened!  I thought you were dead!”   She started laughing when she tried to wear a cross face, and her laughter quickly turned into tears again.  “I thought you had been caught and were dead… I didn’t know what to do!”

 

He wiped her tears off her cheeks and she hugged him again. “Tell me what happened, please.”   She knew that Mirenna was probably calling for her by now, but she didn’t care.  This was her best and only friend in the world.  She had probably lost her job already today, so she it didn’t matter anymore.

 

Michelle Linwood

 

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Arath felt decidedly uncomfortable.  Talking about channeling was never much of a problem with people he didn't know.  Most of the time they were men who wanted to do so as well.  Telling a rediscovered friend who he didn't want to lose again was something else.  But it was hard to say no to a woman who was hugging him and crying.

 

He stood up and crossed the room.  If she wanted to hear the truth he would at least make sure he wasn't within arms length.  "I told you.  I cut the wrong purse and wasn't really given a choice in the matter.  Have you ever heard of the Asha'man?"  She shook her head slightly, still looking irritated.  He grimaced and kicked at a table leg.  "We're a group of men who ... we ..." Light but this was hard.  "It's easier to show you I guess."

 

Siezing the source, Arath carefully wove fire and spirit.  A ball of soft red light appeared over his outstretched hand, bathing the room in a warm glow.  He quickly released the source, letting the ball wink out.  He kept his gaze low and said quietly, "I had to go.  They knew I could channel, and I couldn't stay."

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She felt him stiffen beside her as she begged again, and she could tell he would finally let her in.  He always struggled to keep the truth to himself about things, but had a weakness when she begged.  He rose from where he was sitting and stepped across the room, and she knew it was bad.  He looked away, almost embarrassed – or upset.  Michelle was really worried, then he finally spoke. "I told you.  I cut the wrong purse and wasn't really given a choice in the matter.  Have you ever heard of the Asha'man?"

 

An Asha’man?  What the hell is that?  She shook her head, wondering where this was leading.  He frowned and kicked at the table leg to the desk, his eyes glancing away from her.  It was like he was scared to maintain direct eyesight with her.  This scared her more than anything else. "We're a group of men who ... we ... It's easier to show you I guess."   Show me what?

 

A ball of light appeared above Arath’s hand, and Michelle stared at his hand in shock.  It was there for a moment, then disappeared.  "I had to go.  They knew I could channel, and I couldn't stay."   Channel.  CHANNEL?  “Holy Blasted Light…”  She rose from where she was sitting and walked over to the window, staring out of it for a minute.  He moved towards her, and she turned, taking a few steps to slap him.  She stopped her hand a hair from his cheek.

 

She couldn’t do it.  He looked so upset, and she was so upset too.  He wouldn’t lie to her about this.  He always had this turn of his lips when he was lieing, and he hadn’t done it.  She sunk back against the wall, and slid down to the floor, her head falling into her hands.  “This cannot be happening…” she whispered.  He could channel.  She had heard of men like this.  They were all locked up and killed. 

 

“We have to… there has to be… something?” She looked up at him, and he just crossed his arms across his chest, staring at his feet.  She felt the tears rolling down her cheeks and she wiped them away.  Rising to her feet, she didn’t know what to say, and he opened up his arms, letting her take a step forward and go back into a hug.  He was still the same Arath.  He wasn’t some crazy man.

 

“Well…” she said, trying to choose her words carefully. “Ok then.  What are you going to do now then?” He looked at her with an odd look on his face, and she stared back up at him, trying to be strong. “So you can channel.  Ok then.  Any other surprises for me?  I think I can handle the channeling…” 

 

He stared down at her for a moment, and she laughed, caressing his cheek for a moment before pulling away. “You are still the same Arath, and you are still my best friend.  I just wish you had said good bye.  You really worried me.”

 

Michelle Linwood

 

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Arath didn't really know what to think.  How could she accept it?  He could tell she was still struggling with the fact that he could channel, but she was trying.  Most women couldn't accept that.  The vast majority of married Asha'man were abandoned by their families when they came to the Farm. 

 

"I'm sorry.  Really, I was gone from the city ten minutes after I ran into the Asha'man.  I thought about you a lot afterward.  By the time I was free to come back I assumed you'd be gone."

 

The sound of a heavy person thumping their way up the stairs intruded upon them, accompanied by shouts for a "useless, addled-brained, fool of a girl" which Arath assumed to be Michelle, and judging by the way her face soured as she looked at the door, he was right.  Overtaken by a sudden sense of protectiveness, Arath turned back to Michelle and said, "I can help get you out of here.  Wherever you want to go, from Saldea to Tear, I can have you there within the hour."  A bang on the door made them both jump.  "Or sooner if you wish."  He wondered what the innkeeper would think if they travelled straight out of the room, leaving her keys lock inside.  An oddly satisfying thought.

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He returned her smile, half heartedly, and she knew that he was just upset as she was.  "I'm sorry.  Really, I was gone from the city ten minutes after I ran into the Asha'man.  I thought about you a lot afterward.  By the time I was free to come back I assumed you'd be gone."   They both had.  She had always thought that she would make something of herself within a year or two.  Now she was going on three years and she was still in hell.

 

Then, the worst sound possible was heard in the hallway.  It was Mirenna, looking for the long-missing Michelle.  She could hear the woman yelling, and Michelle had to groan.  Either she was going to lose her job, or the next few weeks would be hell while Mirenna made her wish she had.  This was going to be terrible, she just knew it. 

 

"I can help get you out of here.  Wherever you want to go, from Saldea to Tear, I can have you there within the hour."   “WHAT?” she exclaimed, then heard a bang at the door.  She jumped, startled. "Or sooner if you wish." WHAT?!?!  She just stared at him for a moment in shock, her mind realing.  She couldn’t leave, this was all she had.  But really, she didn’t have anything.  She didn’t even have a home to go to that night.

 

Another banging came from the door, and she knew what she wanted.  “Stay right here,” she said.  Going to the door, she unlocked it, seeing a furious Mirenna there.  Not a single word escaped the woman’s mouth before Michelle decked her, watching the fat hag go flying back, and hitting the floor.  “Shut up, you old witch!”  DAMN that felt good!

 

Running down the stairs, she rushed through a filled dining room and back into a kitchen.  Reaching her hand under the cupboard, she grabbed her one bag.  Inside was another dress, a pair of breeches and shirt, boots, two cooking books, her sewing items, quilt, cloak, and cosmetic items.  Running back up the stairs, she stepped over Mirenna and slammed the door behind her, rushing to a surprised Arath.

 

“You say you will take me anywhere?”   He nodded.  “Then take me with you!  Take me to this new place you are at!  I want to see it!  And I don’t want to lose my best friend again…”

 

Michelle Linwood

 

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For a moment, Arath couldn't seem to move anything but his jaw, and no sound seemed to come out of that either.  Did she just punch out the innkeeper?  He knew she might be excited about leaving Caemlyn, but this was ... well, come to think of it he should have expected something like this.  Michelle was never one for acting rationally.

 

She was back quicker than Arath would have believed possible, carrying a large bag, and with an elated look on her face.  “You say you will take me anywhere?”  He nodded.  “Then take me with you!  Take me to this new place you are at!  I want to see it!  And I don’t want to lose my best friend again…”

 

Arath blinked in surprise.  Of all the places she could ask to go ... She must not realize what she was asking for.  "Michelle," he began cautiously, "there are over a thousand of us ... men like me ... at that place.  Are you sure-"  Another slap caught him by surprise.  Softer than the others, but still enough to sting his already tender cheek.  With a slight glare at his violent friend, Arath pulled Michelle out of the way, siezed Saidin, and wove the complex flows of Spirit to open a gateway.  The familiar silvery blue flash rotated open into total darkness.  Arath stepped inside onto the platform that materialized under his feet.  With a slight smile he reached out to take her hand and help her in.  She'd asked for it.  She might as well get used to the channeling.  "If you're ready then ..."

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"Michelle, there are over a thousand of us ... men like me ... at that place.  Are you sure-" She slapped his cheek lightly, ready to see something new.  She was sick of this place.  She was sick of being here.  It was time for something new, and time for a real adventure.  She was sick of this place and was determined to make something of her life.  She didn’t care where this took her – it was better than where she was now.

 

He glared at her for a moment, and she had a cheeky smile go across her face as he grabbed her hand and pulled her to him.  A blue flash appeared and she saw a dark circle appear.  He stepped onto it, then offered out a hand to pull her inside with him.  "If you're ready then ..." And she was.  She took his hand and stepped onto the platform with him, holding her bag tight to her and clinging tight to him.

 

Pure blackness came around them, and he wrapped his arms around her as she clung to him.  She felt the air escape from her lungs as she gasped, not knowing what to think.  She buried her head in his chest, not wanting to look around her.  She was half scared to death, and half in awe of what was going on.  He soothed her, holding her against him, and after a few minutes, she got the courage to look around. 

 

There was nothing to see.  It was dark and empty.  She couldn’t see anything other than him.  “How long will we be in here, and where are we going?  What exactly is going to be on the other end?  And is this safe?  And I will be safe from the men you mentioned, right?” The questions escaped her lips as fast as she could speak them, the nerves still shaking her.

 

Michelle Linwood

 

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Arath chuckled as Michelle buried her face in his arm.  He remembered well his first experience with skimming.  It was rather ... unsettling.  She seemed to adjust though, and the inevitable barrage of questions came at him.

 

"This is about the safest way in the world to travel.  So long as you don't touch the edges of the gateways.  And we're going directly to my home.  We should come out in my guest room.  The house is at a place we call the Black Tower.  Kind of misleading since there isn't an actual tower there, but it's fitting since we're the balance to the Aes Sedai and the White Tower.

 

"As far as the other men go ..." he paused for a moment.  "Honestly, men go mad there on a daily basis.  But no sane man will give you trouble on my command.  And I will protect you from any insane man that you come across."

 

A moment later Arath felt the platform arrive at their destination.  Re-weaving his gateway, the silvery blue flash rotated open into the spare bedroom of his home.  Letting Michelle step through first, Arath passed through the portal and let it snap shut behind him.  "Well, this is it.  My home.  And ... yours.  For as long as you want.  This will be your room."  He gestured around the decent sized bedroom.  The furnishings were sparse, but serviceable.  One of the perks of being an Attack Leader was first pick of whatever furniture came available.  Realizing it might not be 'warm' enough he added, "Feel free to redecorate it however you want.  I only finished building the place a few months back, and decorating hasn't been high on my priority list."

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"This is about the safest way in the world to travel.  So long as you don't touch the edges of the gateways.  And we're going directly to my home.  We should come out in my guest room.  The house is at a place we call the Black Tower.  Kind of misleading since there isn't an actual tower there, but it's fitting since we're the balance to the Aes Sedai and the White Tower.” Ok then.  Not much to worry about.  She would be safe in this big mass of darkness. 

 

"As far as the other men go… Honestly, men go mad there on a daily basis.  But no sane man will give you trouble on my command.  And I will protect you from any insane man that you come across."   Insane?  She stiffened at that.  At least Arath wouldn’t go insane… would he?

 

The silvery blue circle appeared again and he let her step through.  It was awkward, and she felt a little nauteous, but feeling solid ground beneath her feet and the circle disappearing settled her. She rested her hand on her stomach, and realized she was still wearing her apron.  Light… what had she just done?  Oh Hell, next time I need to think before I do things like this.  I am broke with basically nothing in a new place!

 

"Well, this is it.  My home.  And ... yours.  For as long as you want.  This will be your room."   She looked around, seeing a simple bed with a small desk in the room.  There was also a wash stand to one side and a chest at the foot of the bed.  Otherwise, it was empty. Wow, Arath has no sense of style! "Feel free to redecorate it however you want.  I only finished building the place a few months back, and decorating hasn't been high on my priority list."

 

She smiled, looking around for a moment, and took a glance out the window.  It was a bright midmorning outside, and not the same dull and dreary Caemlyn they had left.  She turned back to Arath, suddenly very proud.  “Arath, I have to say, I am impressed.  You are clean and dressed.  You have your own house.  You have yourself together.  And you aren’t pinching purses anymore.  Really and truly, I’m proud.”

 

They had a tender moment, and he looked a little embarrassed at her praising, and she set down her bag on the desk.  The nausea had left her with a headache, and she sat down on the bed.  “Arath… this is a little overwhelming.  Can I just sleep for a bit?  And get clean?  I totally want the Grand Tour of your house and this tour, but I’m just so tired…”   Just a few hours back she had been a dirt poor waitress in a dirty inn in Caemlyn.  Now she was Light know where in a house that was opened to her with not a care in the world.

 

Michelle Linwood

 

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Arath nodded.  "Of course.  It's a lot to take in all of a sudden."  All of a sudden indeed.  Not even half an hour from the time they saw eachother in the common room, and she was a full days ride from Caemlyn.

 

Walking over to the window, Arath channeled.  Air reached out and grabbed a bucket sitting next to a water barrel.  A moment later, the newly filled bucket floated up through the window and came to rest on the floor.  A quick burst of fire heated the chilly water until steam was rising in thick misty curls. 

 

"There you go.  I need to go back to Caemlyn for a bit.  I left some of my men there and they'll be looking for me soon.  I should be back before long.  You can go wherever you please.  If anyone asks just say you're the guest of Attack Leader Faringal."  He thought for a moment.  "And don't go into the basement.  It's not that I don't want you to see whats down there, but the door will blow up if anyone but me opens it."  He thought again for a moment, then nodded.  That should be it.  He gave her a smile, then walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.

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